A Quick Guide to Polygraphs (And How to Beat Them)

As most fire departments are trying to recruit and maintain the best candidates for their department, they have adopted the firefighter polygraph as one of several tools to weed out unwanted candidates. If you were asked to take such a polygraph, this might be your first one. How do you pass?

The best way to prepare for and pass a firefighter polygraph test is to be completely honest but vague with all your answers. Since the test is designed to monitor your vital signs and/or stress levels in your voice, answer accuracy is key!

Before applying for a firefighting job, most applicants are aware of the minimum qualifications they must possess. This includes things like a clean driving record, no felonies, and a generally positive work history.

However, fire departments don’t always rely solely on one’s background investigation, but also a firefighter polygraph test. It is not only important for you to understand ahead of time what to expect before you walk into the test, but also how to answer the questions properly. We’ll discuss all that and more in this article, so keep reading!

What Is a Polygraph Exam?

You see them all the time on crime TV shows and movies where they’re sometimes used as the smoking gun. We’re talking, of course, about polygraph tests. That’s all you know about these tests though, from how they’re depicted on television. What exactly is a polygraph test?

Also known as a lie detector test, a polygraph test assesses the conductivity of your skin, your respiration, pulse, and blood pressure as you answer the questions asked of you. Those qualities are supposed to indicate whether you’re being truthful. 

The scoring method for polygraphs varies. Some polygraph test administrators rely on a computer to indicate honesty and others have their own scoring system. What the fire department you test with will use is at their discretion. 

How Does a Polygraph (or Voice Stress Analysis) Test Work?

Okay, so those are the basics of a polygraph, but how exactly does the examiner determine your honesty?

One is generally asked questions before and during the test. Whenever an individual gives any deceptive answers, the line of thinking is that physiological changes occur if you’re lying. For example, if there is a faster pulse rate, higher blood pressure, or increased perspiration, it is supposedly a sign of deception on the part of the candidate.

It’s also important to note there is another form of a polygraph known as a voice stress analysis test or CVSA. This test is less involved than the others in that it only measures the amount of stress in your voice.

Supposedly, this is a viable alternative to the traditional polygraph test.

As the polygraph continues, all the signals of the individual are recorded on paper or electronically. After the test, the polygraph examiner checks the graphs to determine if there is any significant change in the various physiological factors of the examinee or if any traces of voice stress were recorded.

This proof, so to speak, indicates whether you were truthful on your polygraph test. 

How to Prepare for a Polygraph

You had a successful interview with a fire department. You’re their top candidate, but before they officially hire you, they want you to pass a polygraph test. The thought makes you a little nervous, not because you have anything to hide, but rather, since this will be your first polygraph.

How do you get yourself ready? Here are our tips.

  • Be as Informed as Possible

The fear of the unknown is part of what’s got your stomach in knots. Alleviate your anxiety by brushing up on all things polygraph tests.  Understand how the polygraph works from beginning to end. Watch some videos of polygraph tests being administered, but please make sure they’re real polygraphs, no Law & Order episodes.

If you have further questions about how the process works, either speak to your future employer or fill in the gaps of your knowledge with your own research. Once you familiarize yourself with how a polygraph test is done, you’ll feel a lot more confident. 

  • Get a Good Night’s Sleep

You want to be as clear-headed as possible so you can answer the polygraph questions to the best of your ability. Hesitating because you’re tired or foggy-headed could be read by the examiner as deceptive even though you eventually do answer the question honestly. 

Although you’re going to be nervous about what’s to come, try to engage in calming activities the night before the test. Don’t drink any alcohol or ingest substances that can affect your cognition. Skip foods that might upset your stomach too. 

Go to bed early, as you’re probably going to have a hard time falling asleep. Try to put the test out of your mind so you can get some quality shuteye. If you find yourself tossing and turning, avoid taking medication, including melatonin.

Melatonin especially can cause moodiness, stomach cramps, dizziness, and daytime drowsiness, none of which you want on the day of your test.

  • Relax!

It’s the morning of the polygraph test and miraculously, you managed to get some sleep the night before. However, you’re feeling more anxious than ever.

Although it’s far easier said than done, you must try to relax before and during the test. Spending too much time thinking about possible questions and answers may cause you to panic, and the test will not turn out well. 

Do some breathing exercises the morning of (and right until the test starts) or engage in a bit of yoga or meditation. Find your center and stay there as best you can. 

What Kind of Questions Are You Asked During a Polygraph Test?

You’d love to know what kinds of questions you should expect when walking into the polygraph test. Here are some sample questions you might encounter, but do keep in mind there are no guarantees. Each fire company will ask its own set of question that may or may not include the following:

  • Have you ever experimented with drugs such as ecstasy, steroids, barbiturates, crystal meth, hallucinogens, PCP, LSD, marijuana, heroin, or cocaine?
  • Have you ever abused a prescription drug?
  • Have you ever partaken in a drug transaction?
  • Have you been around anyone abusing drugs illegally within the last six months or year?
  • Have you ever bought or sold something that might be stolen?
  • Have you ever known someone who committed a crime?
  • Have you had any traffic citations within the last year? Within the last five years? How many?
  • Have any insurance claims you made ever been proven fraudulent?
  • Do you have auto insurance at current?
  • Were you truthful in all your responses during your job interview?
  • Have any collection agencies issued you a bill within the last year? Within the last two years?
  • Have you ever not filed taxes? For how many years?
  • Have you filed for bankruptcy within the past year? Within the last two years?
  • Are any of your bills past due? How many?
  • Is your credit rating good? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever been fired from a job?
  • Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment on the job?
  • Have you ever stolen at a job?
  • Have you ever been arrested for a crime, including an illegal sex act, DUI, reckless driving, shoplifting, prostitution, child molestation, child abuse, rape, embezzlement, extortion, arson, kidnapping, burglary, robbery, homicide, forgery, violent assault, or spousal abuse?

How Do You Pass a Polygraph Test?

Phew! That’s some pretty heavy subject matter for certain. Even if you’ve leaned on the right side of the law all this time, how can you certify you pass your polygraph test?

Simply put, you can’t. Telling the truth when answering questions and taking your time is a good way to pass the polygraph, but even that’s not a surefire thing. 

Here’s what we recommend. Make sure you have full knowledge of what’s being asked of you. If you need to have a question repeated so you understand it, that’s fine. Ask the examiner and they should be more than willing to restate the question. 

We also advise you to remember this. The polygraph or CVSA will usually be administered by either a detective or a private company. We can’t stress this enough, but this person is not your friend

When you sit down to do the interview, the examiner will ask you many questions to try to build a rapport with you. Don’t take the bait. This person’s job is to try to catch you in a lie.

The best answers for you to give are HONEST but VAGUE. For example, you will probably be asked if you have ever stolen anything from an employer.

You think and think and remember one time you inadvertently went home with a pen; thus, you stole.

The examiner may proceed to ask follow-up questions like, “are you sure that’s the only thing you’ve ever stolen?” or “how long ago was this,” “be more specific,” “how can you be sure that only happened once?” and so on.

If you are questioned on specific dates and times, your best answer is always, “I don’t recall.”

Ultimately, the polygraph examiner may claim you’re lying about something you know you didn’t lie about.

That’s part of the process. If this happens, it’s usually a sign that the particular department you are applying to is looking for another candidate.

Most fire departments don’t actually take polygraph/CVSA tests seriously. They are strictly used as a tool to deny a candidate they may not want. I’ve met several people who had told me they lied on their polygraph and it came back as showing no deception.

What If You Fail the Polygraph Test – Then What?

Okay, so let’s say the worst happens and you do indeed fail the polygraph. Knowing what you do now, you can use this failing grade to determine that one of two things happened. 

For one, either you did lie and the polygraph test happened to catch it, even if you lied accidentally. The second and more likely conclusion is that someone at the fire department changed their mind about you and doesn’t want to go through with hiring you.

Which is which may be hard to gauge, but either way, this job isn’t working out. We’d recommend resuming your job search. 

How Accurate Are Polygraph Tests, Anyway?

We mentioned earlier that polygraph tests use physiological “proof” to determine your honesty, but that those exact traits might not be indicative of your trustworthiness. How accurate is a polygraph then?

Well, the US Congress Office of Technology Assessment, in that organization’s review of polygraph accuracy, said this: “significant error rates are possible…and examiner and examinee differences and the use of countermeasures may further affect validity.”

That statement was made back in 1983, which goes to show that polygraph accuracy has been an ongoing problem for many years. 

More recently, in 2003, the National Academy of Sciences published a report on the topic of polygraphs and their inaccuracy. In that report, the NAS called polygraphs “unreliable, unscientific, and biased.” The report also mentions an interesting stat. The NAS says that 57 polygraph studies from the American Polygraph Association (the organization that polygraph examiners belong to) out of 80 were inaccurate in some way.

At the end of the day, you should be happy that you’re only being asked to take a polygraph test for a job. Although it’s disappointing if you don’t get hired, there are people whose freedoms have hinged on a polygraph test, such as those accused of crimes like murder. Testing inaccuracy is a far bigger deal for them! 

Related Questions

Can you fail a polygraph when telling the truth?

Yes, it is possible to fail a polygraph even while telling the truth.  That’s because the results are interpreted by a polygraph examiner.  If he/she deems the results inconclusive, you may still fail the test.

Does every fire department use polygraph tests?

No, not all fire departments require you to take a polygraph to be hired. This practice depends on the individual department’s policies and regulations to secure employment.