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Open-ended questions for oral history interviews

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This is Part 5 in a series of articles that provide oral history guidelines for those who share our passion for collecting American fire history before it is lost to the ages.

The types of questions you ask are critical to the success of your interview. Open-ended questions are questions that encourage people to talk about what is important to them. They help to establish rapport, help you gather additional information, and increase your understanding. An open-ended question is one that cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no" response.

When asking open-ended questions, listen carefully to the answers and do not interrupt. Be prepared to respond to, and discuss, issues you had not anticipated.

The following examples of open-ended questions can be used as a starting point in the development of your own questions or be used as backup questions in your interview:

  1. How did you initially get involved with the fire service?
  2. How did your military experience prepare you for a career in the fire service?
  3. By what measure was a firefighter considered a success (or failure) back then?
  4. What are the differences between the fire service back then and today?
  5. Who mentored you (took you under their wing or took an interest in your training and development)?
  6. How was new technology introduced in your department?
  7. Can you describe your role in the __________ emergency in 19XX?
  8. Has the role of the firefighter changed over the years?
  9. What were the challenges that you faced in your career?
  10. Who did you and other firefighters turn to for answers in your department?
  11. How did the firefighters cope with the death of a victim?
  12. How did you and other firefighters deal with the death of a member from your own department?
  13. What did you and your fellow firefighters do around the station in your down time?
  14. Is there a single emergency within your community or within the country that changed your department?
  15. Do you remember the first engine that you rode on when you first started out?
  16. What do you consider the most significant change in the fire service?

In the final part of this series, we'll discuss mop-up and publishing your oral history interview. 

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  • The National Fire Heritage Center
  • Address: 17701 Creamery Road  Emmitsburg, Maryland 21727
  • Phone: (210) 380-8364
  • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.