By Scott Lawder
Ever find yourself wondering what it takes to be an outstanding rookie firefighter? Or, perhaps what it takes to be the guy that people say, “Wow, that’s the best rookie we’ve had in a long time,” or “Don’t lose what you got going for you, rookie.” Whether we try to or not, it’s in our nature and our blood to want to achieve a high level of excellence. Ask yourself, “But, what does it take? What can I do to become the rookie firefighter that everyone talks about from the past?”
I am referring to that rookie that your first officer told you about when you came from rookie school to report for your first tour of duty.
I’m not talking about the expectations placed on you by your recruitment officers or administration staff. I’m talking about the things your crew on the floor expect of you.
It’s often said that your first tour of duty sets the bar for your next 30+ years of service. Your brothers and sisters are watching, interacting, and observing not only the way you perform your duties and interact with the public but with the way you carry yourself around the firehouse. But, what exactly does it take to leave an everlasting impression or to develop a great work ethic? These questions came to me when I first started my career in the fire service with the Calgary (Alberta, Canada) Fire Department (CFD) and then again a year later when I got hired in my hometown of Peterborough (Ontario, Canada). Two years of being a rookie in two totally opposite ends of the country—with two ways of doing things—made me realize that this was not just a job; it was a lifestyle.
Your first day at the fire hall is guaranteed to be simultaneously nerve-racking and exciting. Up until you walk through the door, you’ll wonder what lies ahead of you and what to say and what to do. The truth is, just go with it. Keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open (as I was told).
You see, this career is unlike any other. You share a room with three other guys (perhaps you’re fortunate enough to have separate rooms and not a big dorm) and you could be with them for 24 or 48 hours in one shift. You’re walking into a close knit group that’s worked together, trained together, sympathized for one another, and been around through the thick and thin. It’s important to understand that they may give you a hard time about some things or be on your case because of something that you didn’t do. However, it is because they’re trying to push you to be the best you can be, to give you the best chance possible to become part of the family. It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be black or white. But once you’re “in,” it’s a sense of belonging yet to be found in any other career.
Recently, I had a friend who was hired as a professional firefighter in Ajax (Ontario, Canada) who e-mailed me asking for some insight on what to anticipate. He, like many others was concerned about what to expect. I continued reading the questions he was asking, and they got me thinking.
I had never worked in Ajax before; I didn’t even know anyone that worked there. Could the expectations be different here then there? Or, can they really be that different from province to province or state to state? I decided that the best way to answer my questions was to get in touch with a few guys that I had met at the 2012 Fire Department Instructors Conference. I then compiled a list of helpful hints and tips from my fellow brothers and sisters in Florida; Chicago, Illinois; Calgary; Peterborough; Halifax; and Detroit, Michigan.
Although the following list of expectations doesn’t cover all the bases (things slightly change from place to place based on traditions), it covers enough that if you always keep them in the back of your mind you will be well on your way to becoming an outstanding rookie. And, not only proving to yourself that you’re the right person for the job, it shows your fellow brothers and sisters that they’ve made the right decision in letting you become part of the family.
- Always be the first to jump up and do something. When someone asks for a volunteer, always raise your hand right away. Your crew will like to see a young, keen, enthusiastic rookie. This will more than likely be the first thing they notice about your work ethic.
- Last one to sit down, first one up. Here, I’m referring to shift lunches and dining. Never be the first one to grab a plate. Always wait for your officers and senior men to grab their meal before helping yourself. Other than getting up for seconds, make sure to immediately help cleaning up, regardless of whether or not you’re done with your meal. Trust me; your food will still be there after you’re done cleaning up the kitchen. If someone says “sit down and finish,” insist that you’re giving your food time to digest or that you’re full, and keep cleaning.
- Coffee is up! Always have a pot of coffee ready to go. Every time you walk by the coffee maker to check the filter or see if there are fresh grinds, have a full pot of water ready to be poured in at a moment’s notice. The last thing you want is to hear over the pager, “Don’t worry Rookie, I got the coffee.” When at the table, look around and if someone is almost done with their coffee. If so, get up, grab the pot, and offer a top up. Chances are guys will appreciate the effort. It’s the small things that always seem to go the furthest.
- Last man standing. Always be the last to “settle in” for the evening. You might be told you can settle in after 10 or 11, but try to be the last man standing. That way, you can make sure the kitchen is clean and station doors are locked. As with #3, have a fresh filter and grinds ready to go before you go to sleep so when you get up you can start pouring right away. Then, when someone goes to the kitchen, the coffee will be ready.
- First man standing. Ask what time your crew awakens, and then get up h half hour before that. If someone is an early riser, find out what time they get up and wake up 15 minutes prior. This also gives you the chance to clean up anything that was missed before the oncoming shift arrives. Remember, you also want to beat them to making the first brew of the day as long as you’re the junior guy. Trust me, it’s worth it.
- Hmmm…..toilets. Learn to love them. Be the toilet scrubbing guy. Get a pair of medical gloves and scrub away. You want to make them as close to as clean as the day they were made. If someone offers to clean the toilets, say “I’ve got it” and beat them to it. I was once told that there was rookie that polished a toilet so clean the officer slid right off the seat!
- “We got ourselves a ringer.” If the phone rings, be the first to pick it up; you will likely be harassed if someone beats you to it. Remember, it’s a race! I’ve been hip-checked into pop machines and thrown over tables just trying to beat someone to the phone. Some play this game, some don’t. However, don’t just sit there, especially at dinner. Sit in the seat closest to the phone so when it rings, you’re right there. Don’t be surprised if guys try to take that spot, though. This goes for the door as well.
- Respect your senior firefighters and officers. Refer to your captain as “Captain” or “Cap.” But keep in mind that “Cap” is a little more personal and should be used after you get to know them. All chiefs are referred to as “Chief,” especially on the fireground. If there is more than one in a room, use “Chief” followed by his last name. Don’t get sucked into a first-name basis. Others will call them by their first names, but remember, they’ve probably known them for a long time. Just because you work there doesn’t mean you’re best friends the moment you walk in the door. To this day, I still refer to my officers as “Chief” and “Cap.” Now, if a chief insists you call him by his first name then, of course, respect his request.
- TV. Stay out of the TV room your rookie year. As a rookie, you have lots to learn and do. If you’re invited in to watch a movie or show, just thin if there’s anything you could do before you go in. Ensure you have completed all your regular duties. The last thing you want is to be the only guy in there when everyone else is washing the chief’s truck. During my rookie years I wasn’t in the TV room until after my probation was up. Every once in a while I was invited, and on occasion I would accept, but only when all my other duties were complete.
- Mr. Forgetful. If you start something, be sure to finish it. If you’re given a job to do after lunch, write it down so you don’t forget. Keep a notepad in your pocket so you can write down good ideas. If you get sidetracked and forget to do something, it can tarnish your reputation. The excuse, “sorry, I forgot” only works before you got the job. In this job, everyone relies on each other to do their part. Prove yourself to the team!
- Mr. Know-It-All. Listen; don’t talk. Share your ideas, but be careful of this uncharted territory. Offer opinions, but only when asked. Unless the time is right and you’re not insulting anyone. Remember you’re a rookie. No one really cares if you’re hungry, or how you missed your lunch because a delivery guy showed up. If you’re not sure of something ask your senior man or captain. If someone starts to tell you about how to operate the extrication shears pay attention. Just because you’ve worked as a volunteer or full time in the past doesn’t mean there isn’t more then one way to operate a tool.
- Under your skin? If you feel like the guys are giving you a tough time, it’s because they are. Remember, this is a good thing, a way of bonding. If people are teasing you, it’s because they like you. So, if you feel that people aren’t talking to you or seem to be keeping their distance, there’s probably a reason. Go talk to one of your senior men and ask them if everything is okay. Maybe there’s something he wants to talk to you about but can’t find a way to bring it up. If he tells you something that you don’t think is accurate, keep it to yourself, thank him for letting you know, and then make the necessary adjustments.
- Shift pride and ownership. Remember, you are a reflection of your crew. Know your equipment—all of it; where it is, how it works, and the different techniques used for each one. You should be able to rhyme off everything in each compartment with your eyes closed. When working around the hall, remember the phrase, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” Make sure the hall is kept clean at all times, especially before going off shift in the morning. The first thing the oncoming shift will point out is if the hall’s a mess. Clean the counters and tables, empty the dishwasher, change the garbage if its full, and make the stove spotless.
Try and get involved. Becoming part of the team is more than just about getting hired. Get involved with activities not only taking part on duty but off duty as well. If there’s a union meeting, go to it. If there’s a fundraiser, be there. Your team needs to know you’ll be there, whatever the need, prompt and professional. Not only does this make you keen, but it shows them you want to make a difference. One day, they may need to put their lives in your hands. This list could go on and on, but these are only a few things to mention. Remember, keep pride in your job.
So here it is, your first day on shift. It’s your call to make. Do YOU want to be the rookie everyone talks about? Be the rookie that the guys fight for to stay on their shift. Be the rookie that your captain praises to the other shifts. Your future and what you make of it lies in your hands.
Scott Lawder is a nine-year fire service veteran and a member of the Peterborough (Ontario, Canada) Fire Services.