Evaluation Strategies for Fire Service Mentors, Instructors, and Officers

If I walked into the classroom and said……..I am glad some of you showed up.  My name is Paul Hasenmeier and I am a firefighter / paramedic and newly promoted lieutenant that is going to teach you everything you need to know about evaluating.  You might wonder what experience I have evaluating employees.  Not much really, but I did read the book sitting on your shelf left unread by you.

Your evaluation of me as an instructor would most likely be shattered by me not meeting your expectations even in the first minutes of the presentation.  Those expectations are preconceived thoughts and ideals based on your previous experiences.  In retrospect, if I were to begin the presentation looking sharp, professional, and able to relate to you, your evaluation of me would most likely receive higher marks.

The process of evaluating probationary employees, seasoned veterans, and students are different in their own right.  Whether mentors need measurable progress to report to their supervisor about a rookie, instructors need performance measurement criteria to evaluate a student’s course completion, or officers want to correct small glitches in performance and reinforce positive efforts.  Through regular evaluation, positive developmental achievement can be reached in any organization.

No matter whom you are evaluating, whether it be a student, rookie, or seasoned veteran:

  • maintain a positive attitude
  • use the methods of evaluation
  • you must remain objective
  • understand the difficulties you may encounter
  • prohibit evaluation errors

The evaluation process is not meant to be a negative one, but we often find ourselves just as stressed before and during due to little training, fear of a lawsuit, or afraid to do the right thing.  We can turn the negative perceptions into a positive performance process by; using some easy terms – associates in place of  subordinate, attributes in place of strengths, objectives in place of weakness and focusing on the positives / value each person has even though it may be difficult to find in some people.

If we are truly trying to develop great employees, regular evaluation is necessary to commend progress and nip problems in the butt.  Observations you make regarding one’s on-duty performance may be directly related to that person’s off-duty behavior.  At which time it is your business to step in and help.  For example: family death, money issues, substance addiction.


We evaluate so the goals and objectives of our organizations can be monitored.  Each one of us plays a vital role in the overall performance of the team who provides customer service.  All of us want to know where we stand in relation to the expectations of the organization.  The process in turn does provide a written record for management and the evaluated. 

As an evaluator, you will encounter four types of people.  First, will be your stars that have a high level of job knowledge and maturity.  Second, will be your troublemakers that have a high level of job knowledge, but low maturity.  These people will be your most challenging to tune behavior to what is expected.  Third, will be your people that have a low job knowledge, but high maturity.  Increase the training, and performance will improve.  Lastly, are your rookies who have a low job knowledge and maturity.  Training, direction, and time will mold these new fire service professionals.

The misconception that many of us have is that evaluations are used as a disciplinarian.  This stereotype is wrong and should be excluded in all aspects of evaluation, because we are trying to improve performance through this process.  We all make mistakes, it’s okay if we learn from them.  How we deal with the mistake is a true judge of character.  Now, if the same mistake is made over and over, that is poor performance which needs addressed.  Through the evaluation process we can work to help the person improve to the required level of expectation.

Remaining objective during the evaluation process is difficult, but not impossible.  Some errors of evaluating will be discussed in a few paragraphs after we learn what to base our evaluations on.  We often base what a firefighter is supposed to do off of their job description.  Although okay, job descriptions are often very general without specific expectations.  Have each member of your organization contribute some expectations that should be met by everyone, and then hold each other accountable.  Example; work hard, keep a clear head, self reliance is important, give most people the benefit of the doubt, and have fun.

Whether probationary, part-time, or full-time employees, they need to know what we as supervisors and evaluators expect.  Tell them and help them improve skills, knowledge, aptitude, and attributes.  Some of the more difficult items to improve will be common sense, situational awareness, and “street smarts”.  Can we teach the last three?  We absolutely can through persistent teaching and direction.

The methods of evaluating include supervisor appraisals (which are most traditional), self appraisals, peer appraisals, subordinate appraisal (which may just give you a good evaluation for fear of retribution), outside appraisals (which may be done by individuals with no knowledge of your organization and be costly), and combined appraisals (which use the supervisor and self appraisals to determine performance levels).

Now, pull out your organizations evaluation form and look at how it’s laid out, what categories you evaluate, and my favorite how the scoring it tabulated.  Some forms use scoring from 1-5, while others use 1-10 with the highest number being the highest score.  What level of performance is a 3 or a 7?  It is the evaluators opinion, which is subjective and what we are trying to avoid.  If we use a scoring scale of 0-1-2, with 0 representing does not meet expectations, 1 representing meets expectations, and 2 representing exceeds expectations we can really place importance on where improvement is needed.  On this type of scale the evaluator is required to document and provide details of why a person does not meet or exceeds expectations.

Evaluations should not be a surprise for you or the employee. Keep track of significant events in a file or on post-it-notes, good or bad, throughout the evaluation period whether it be annual or semi-annual.  This documentation will help keep you objective and give you examples to back up your evaluation of an employee.

Difficulties Evaluating

By recognizing the difficulties you may encounter with evaluating, you will be more prepared and cognizant of how to make the process a positive step in the performance improvement process.

  • Subjectivity
  • Can be a de-motivator
  • Inconsistencies
  • Perception of being unfair
  • Little or no information obtained
  • Value management places on evaluation

Errors When Evaluating

Errors during the evaluation process should be avoided.  You must first understand them and then avoid them, which will help you remain objective, consistent, and fair.

Deficiency Error – an employee may be deficient in one area, but you score them deficient in all areas

Contamination Error – you were told something bad about the employee just prior to the evaluation

Halo Error – you apply the perception of one aspect across the entire evaluation, may be good or bad

Lenient or Hard Error – lenient reduces conflict, hard is a common error of new supervisors (does not meet expectations)

Bias Error – your personal bias should not cloud the evaluation

Recency Error – evaluating based off of recent events and not the entire evaluation period

Average Score Error – rating the employee in the middle of the scale for all categories

Comparing Error – only one employee would receive a good evaluation

Frame Reference Error – inconsistency between supervisors based on personal standards


Fire service mentors, instructors, and officers must be proud of the people they are developing.  Never forget to give feedback during training, after incidents and even during daily activities.  You, your firefighters, and organization will benefit as performance improves.  The next generation of fires and gun shot wounds will be handled by the exemplary professional performance of those we evaluate, coach, and counsel.  Be safe!