Chief Guccione's Thoughts To Help Improve Your Success

How to Properly Fill Out Your Background Packet

By Chief Dean Guccione - 

As you make it further and further through the hiring process, at some point, you’re going to be asked to fill out a pre-employment packet or personal history questionnaire before you are given a conditional offer of employment.

These packets/questionnaires are typically between 20 and 30 pages and ask all types of questions about your past work experience, personal relationships, criminal history, previous drug use, driving record, personal finances, sexual history, and credit history and relationships with past and current coworkers and supervisors.

The key to being successful in completing your packet, is to be consistent in the way you answer each question, because there may be overlapping questions. If you have any inconsistencies in your overlapping answers, you will be immediately eliminated from the process because it is considered lying if you give two different answers to a similar question.

Everybody Has Past Mistakes

Don’t worry if you have some past mistakes. Nobody is perfect and the background investigator understands that. However, you are being evaluated on your personal decisions and judgement you’ve exercised over the last 5 to 7 years.

If you’ve taken any type of drug in the last 12 to 36 months, that has not been prescribed to you by a doctor, there’s a good chance you will not pass your background. This includes smoking pot. Just because pot is legal in a number of states now, doesn’t mean that fire departments, in those states, will relax their drug policies regarding marijuana. Most of them haven’t, just as many departments want to know how many alcoholic drinks you consume every day, every week and every month. This is usually a question within the packet.

Ultimately, the background investigator wants and needs to see that you exercise good judgement and make good personal decisions in your life every day. That includes paying your bills on time, and not having any parking tickets or traffic tickets within the last 5 to 7 years. This also includes any other personal decision you make that demonstrates you are not responsible or capable of using good personal judgement, including the amount that you drink and party. Just because it’s your right to drink to oblivion every week or smoke a joint every day, doesn’t mean a fire department has to hire you. They have the right to set any standard they choose when it comes to personal drug and alcohol consumption.

If you can show that you haven’t used drugs, and don’t drink excessively, and that you make good personal decisions by having a clean driving record, good credit, and no negative contact with law enforcement in the last 5 to 7 years, you will usually do well throughout the background process.

You Will Need to Explain Your Past Mistakes

If you’ve had a clean background for the past 7 years, but made a few mistakes way back when, you will need to explain those mistakes and what you learned from the mistake(s).

Departments understand that nobody is perfect, and everyone has lapses in judgement or makes mistakes, and it’s up to you to discuss the mistake honestly, with the investigator, and explain exactly what happened and show remorse for the mistake or poor decision.

You will also need to discuss what you learned from the mistake, and if you do it correctly, you will be in a much better position to pass the background investigation. I’ve seen candidates who’ve had a DUI in the last 7 to 10 years get hired, because of the way they discussed that mistake in what they learned, and what they did moving forward to never let that happen again.

However, if you have 2 or 3 DUIs, you will most likely not pass the background. A single mistake is one thing, but a pattern of making the same mistakes over and over is a sign of poor judgement and you will most likely be eliminated from the process because you will be unable to discuss what you learned from that experience and what you did moving forward to prevent it from happening again.

Your Personal History Answers Will be Compared to Your Polygraph Exam

It is not only critical that you are consistent with your answers on the personal history questionnaire, but you must be honest. Especially, if you are subject to a polygraph exam, as part of the hiring process.

Your answers on your PHQ will be compared with the answers you give to the officer or technician administering the polygraph. You will be asked a series of questions by the officer to establish a baseline for the exam, then you will be connected to the polygraph, and then asked “yes or no” questions based the answers you gave to the officer during your pre-polygraph interview.

This is a very stressful part of the background process, but if you’re honest, you will do fine and more than likely be recommended to move forward in the process.

Final Thoughts

Your background packet will be the first step in the background investigation process and how you answer each question will be the foundation for everything that follows.

You will be interviewed by the investigator who will ask you about all of your answers, and you must be able to explain any mistakes you’ve made in your past, why they happened and what you did moving forward to correct the mistake or to never let the mistake happen again. You must also show remorse, or you could be finished before you get started.

These answers will be compared to how you answer the questions during your interview for the polygraph. This is another reason why it’s so critical to be consistent and honest with all of your answers throughout the background process.

If, for any reason, the investigator believes you are not consistent with your answers, or if you are evasive or vague, you will be instantly removed from the process and you won’t know it until you get a letter from HR saying “thank you for applying for the position of firefighter. Unfortunately, you won’t be moving forward in the process.” All because they think you have something to hide or you’re not being forthright and honest.

Additionally, if you have recent mistakes in your background, it will be difficult for you to pass the background portion of the hiring process, because as a firefighter candidate, you should be exercising good judgement and making good personal decisions in your life every day.

A DUI seven to ten years ago is not as bad as getting a speeding ticket 6 months ago, or getting a parking ticket 2 weeks ago or even a year ago. You corrected the DUI and never let it happen again, but with a speeding ticket or parking ticket, you recently used poor judgement and made a bad decision, and the fire service believes that recent past behavior is a predictor of future behavior. This is a theory by Gordon Graham that the fire service follows very closely. That's why your smart behavior and good decision making, over time, is so important. That’s the key; over time.

This includes people you hang out with and your friends. If you’re using poor judgement by hanging out with friends who have questionable character or backgrounds, just because you grew up with them, it’s going to be tough to pass the background. You will always be guilty by association in the eyes of the fire service. Again, it shows poor judgement on your part in the friends you keep regardless of how long you have known them.

Everything in your life should reflect the life of a firefighter at all times. That means doing the right thing even when pressured not to. It means making good decisions every day. It means letting it go when someone cuts you off on the freeway. It may also means changing who you hang out with, even though you've been friends since childhood.

If you’re serious about becoming a firefighter, don’t let anything get in the way of that. About 50% of all firefighter candidates don’t pass the background, many times for the reasons I’ve stated above.

Work hard every day to make good personal decisions and exercise good judgement in everything you do, and you will be one step closer to earning your badge!