Surviving your first year as a “rookie”
So you finally made it! Studied up your math and logic, spent countless days at the gym on the stair-master, had a great test day and an even better interview, then wrapped it all up by passing all the mundane tests of pre-employment before landing your dream job as a career firefighter! Unfortunately for you, the hard part has yet to begin. There is a reason that fire departments withhold badges and have extensive training policiesâ€¦THEY DONâ€™T KNOW IF YOU DESERVE TO BE THERE YET! Simply put, you could be just another schmuck off the streets who wanted a job.
Letâ€™s face it; the testing process is designed to determine who is capable to learn new things, not who is the best firefighter. It is the job of the department to provide the candidate with a good foundation for being a firefighter. Donâ€™t worry, I am not the only one who knows thisâ€¦your entire truck, shift, and department also knows this, and they plan to take the entire year to see if you have what it takes to be in the brotherhood.
Every probationary firefighter goes through a similar process of â€œEarning Their Badge;â€ some just have it harder than others. I have heard stories about fire houses making their probationary members sit on the floor, while the fire house dog relaxes in its cozy spot on the couch. On the other end of the spectrum, there are departments that have their probationary members moving up to officer type roles. While I do not agree with either one in particular, I feel there needs to be a certain level of respect earned (both by the current firefighters and the candidate) both in the fire house and on the job. It is a nervous period for any new firefighter.
Trust me, I am fresh off my probation at the City of Alton Fire Department in Illinois, and these guys were brutal! Actually it wasnâ€™t too bad; in fact, I was my own worst enemy more often than not! If I could go back, I wouldnâ€™t change a thing…but just to help out some of you â€œprobyâ€ firefighters on the job, here are a few tips. I know it is sometimes hard to hear the â€œback in my dayâ€ stories, but realistically, my â€œback in the dayâ€ was only a little over a year ago. SO LISTEN UP CANDIDATE! Below are a just a few tips for those just coming into the fire service. My hard drive doesnâ€™t contain enough memory to put everything a probationary firefighter should know/do, so these are just some lessons that I have personally learned along the way.
There will be times to interject in conversation and bring opinionsâ€¦and this first year is not one of those times. At least not the first day! I was a Captain with my volunteer department for three years before becoming career with Alton. The first day on the job, my Captain comes to me and says, â€œHey kid, I heard you know some things,â€ My reply was simply,â€œ I donâ€™t know a damn thing, sirâ€. It left him chuckling and shaking his head and said, â€œI like you already kid.â€
I put this first because it will be the first mistake made by a rookie firefighter. This is particularly tough since most candidate firefighters have previous volunteer or military experience. Awesome works for getting your Firefighter XXVI certification and your EMT Ph.D, but you havenâ€™t proven anything to these firefighters yet. Think you donâ€™t have to prove anything? Do yourself and your house a favor and move along! Prove to them through hard work, preparedness, and dedication that you are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure everyone makes it home safe. Some of you may think, â€œIf I have an opinion then I will say it, and they will have to respect that because we are adults in the workplace.â€ You know, I thought that onceâ€¦but the fire service isnâ€™t a job; it is a way of life. Still donâ€™t agree? Let me come in to your home, kick my feet up on the couch, and tell you what channel we are going to watch on the TV.
Do not be afraid to ask for helpâ€¦and NEVER turn away help when it is offered
Believe it or not, there are a few guys on the job that know a thing or twoâ€¦turn into a sponge and ABSORB! Do not waste time figuring out who knows the most, because they all know more than you at this point. If you do not ask for help with something, then it is assumed that you are an expertâ€¦BE READY TO PROVE IT! When it comes to a mistake on a job or a catastrophic final practical, your boss will be a lot more forgiving if you have been asking for help and coming in on days off to practice. Maybe worse than not asking for help, is not taking help when it is given. I had a guy approach me on probation and offer to show me how to hit a hydrant. I thought, â€œIs this guy serious? I can tap a plug in my sleep.â€ I decided to entertain it his suggestion because I felt bad, instantly I became humbled! He showed me a couple short cuts that only the seasoned vet would know.
Lesson learned: As good as you think you are at any particular task, there is someone way better at it. So take advantage of these opportunities to learn and improve yourself. One day you will return the favor.
Never miss a meal with the crew
You will lose firefighters over your career. Not necessarily through Line of Duty Deaths or anything, but definitely through retirement.Â Â Always sacrifice some time to eat with your shift. There is something special about sitting down and â€œbreaking breadâ€ with the guys. Besides catching a good job, this is one of my favorite moments. I am on a truck company that loves to eat (as in we plan our day and have a special meeting to decide the details of our meals). Although I have a limited menu as a chef, I do whatever I can to make sure we are eating together. This is your best chance to get to know the entire crew, since the majority of your probation will more than likely be spent in the training room studying or cleaning (at least mine was).
Sit down and just listen, you will hear everything from a good old fashioned ball busting, to a story about a good working job. If you are on a department that does not do this, then I am sorry. You will not be able to change this immediately (refer back to keeping your mouth shut for the first year). Â But eventually, opportunities will come up and you may be called upon to step up. Also, observe three key rules to make things a little easier: You are last to get your food unless told, sit down last so that you do not accidently take your captainâ€™s seat (learned this the hard way), and make sure you are at the sink ready to receive the dishes!
You canâ€™t beat the schedule of a firefighter, but it is inevitable that you will have plans on the shift you work. It almost seems like friends call your Battalion Chief and ask when your shift day is so that they can plan that wedding or fishing trip. If you are allowed to do shift trades, and someone asks you to pick up their shift, I highly recommend you help them out with this! First, it is a great chance to see another shift and how they work, but also, you are beginning to build a good reputation. They would not be asking the bottom guy for help unless they needed it, so this is your chance. Also, it will heighten your chances of getting the favor in return when you really get in a pinch!
With this comes the line between flexibility and over-flexible. Donâ€™t totally take the sacrifice from your family for the job. They should know that you will have to provide an extreme amount of time this first year, but try not to completely consume yourself in the job. Spend your time off with your family and invite them to come up to the fire houseâ€¦just be sure to ask permission from the boss first!
Figure out who to be aroundâ€¦and who to avoid
There will be some guys that want nothing to do with you and others that want to do whatever it takes to stir the pot and get you in trouble. Avoid these counterproductive people, and instead, gravitate to those that are willing to help. Take advantage of the opportunities to learn and develop from these positive influences. Be wary of what you say to certain individuals. Ever hear of the â€œkeep your friends close and your enemies closer?â€ Yes, unfortunately that may apply to some of your fellow firefighters.
Let me reiterate that this is just a few of the tips that I feel are important after going through probation. When reading similar writings, you will see the same things: Train â€˜til it hurts, read books, be early, and other obvious points. I want to give insight to new firefighters on some of the unwritten rules by providing examples. You will fail, but it is how you respond to it that determines if you are worthy to be a firefighter. I am a pretty good example of thatâ€¦I have failed more than most should and I am still here! Times will get tough but it will all seem easy at the end.Â Â Never forget why we do the job and never stop learning. You will notice that upon your probationâ€™s completion, you will naturally retain these etiquette tips. You will be a more respected individual and will be welcomed into the brotherhood. Keep striving for success and working hard to get there! If you manage to survive your departmentâ€™s probation, then you will be rewarded by membership to the brotherhood and employment in the worldâ€™s best career! Good luck Candidate!
About the author:
Matt Preston joined the fire service in 2006 as a volunteer firefighter with the Village of Hartford, IL Fire Department. Matt worked as an industry firefighter for US Steel before becoming a career firefighter for the City of Alton, IL Fire Department in January 2013. Matt graduated with his bachelorâ€™s degree in Fire Service Management in May 2014. In August 2014, Matt was appointed to Deputy Chief of the Hartford Fire Department, where he is involved in developing SOPâ€™s, training, pre-plan programs, inspection programs, and safety.