Advice for the New Kids in the “House”

BY BRIAN K. JOHNSON SR.

Throughout my fire service career, I’ve had many experiences in my “house” each day that I’m sure occur in most firehouses throughout the country. From firehouse gossip to “five alarmers,” these are experiences unique to the fire service culture. Writing about any number of these will in some way advance our knowledge, awareness, and sensibilities with respect to this way of life.

The anticipation, the mystery, the fear, the excitement, the uncertainties, the ribbing, the anger, the fights, the practical jokes, the camaraderie, the meals, the sporting events, the fundraisers, the moaning and complaining, the tears, the incidents, the victories, new life, and death—you get the idea. We are part of a family, with all its ups and downs and family dynamics under this one unusual roof.

As within all families, it’s possible to grow soundly or become dysfunctional. But when you enter this family, you are already grown up, bringing with you what you’ve accumulated from the past.

As an adult, you now have the opportunity to make your own decisions; to make better, more informed choices; and to develop goals based on these choices that will assist you in fulfilling your dreams.

This career offers a special setting and unique opportunities to facilitate your personal development, all within a structure that contains not only elements of family life but of a military and business culture as well.

So, while you are here, use the time to ask yourself these questions: In what direction do I want to go? Why do I want to go there? How do I get there? Since you report to a firehouse rather than an office building or factory, consider why you walk into this structure in particular, and not some other building, to make your living.

INITIAL FEARS AND ADJUSTMENTS

When I began my career, many times I’d ask myself, Why did I become a firefighter? I’d be so scared to work at night sometimes that I’d stay awake even when there were no calls, hoping and praying that none would come in. It was a difficult time. I’d wonder, Am I cut out for this job? Am I a wimp? Or was I just human, making adjustments that are very natural to most of the men and women who start this journey? If nothing else, I was certain I had to stay the course. I had to persevere not only to support my family and pay the bills but also for my personal integrity, to finish what I’d started and see what I was made of.

Because I never grew up wanting to be a firefighter, I didn’t carry or initially understand the proud traditions of the fire service. Therefore, I went into it as I had gone into previous jobs, without an identifying sense of commitment. That was a mistake. Over the years, I realized that this job required a maturity not necessarily grounded in any intrinsic sense or preknowledge of this profession, although that is certainly helpful. This maturity is rooted in one’s simple willingness to learn and to be aggressive, yet well-balanced in pursuing this knowledge.

Like most people, I saw the fire service as a noble “gig.” In this belief, I found the pride and motivation I needed to give me a grounded sense of purpose and destiny. I also needed a practical focus that training provided. But in my youth, I needed a deeper sense of direction and no-nonsense guidance filled with understanding and mature encouragement as well. But who gets that?

That’s often the problem: If you’re young and ready to receive instruction, where will you get it if you haven’t gotten it by now? Perhaps it’s not so important for older probies who initially enter the service, although that’s not necessarily true, either.

Certainly, however, the young breeds are the most impressionable ones who, coming from a number of different backgrounds, require the benefits of a consistent disciplinary guidance that goes beyond the pragmatic fire service concerns—something that speaks to the whole person, since they are now in a “family-house-work” setting.

I am proud that our profession is one that can build up a person’s character and transform that person into someone who can face his fears in the midst of iminent danger, who diligently prepares for these challenges and therefore has a certain confidence and assurance in his abilities, cultivating and applying systematic approaches (tasks) to realize desired objectives.

Ideally, the veteran firefighter should facilitate this basic development in the “young lions.” He is not there to hold their hands; he is “guide and mentor” whether he wants to be or not. For his actions and words teach at all times, positively or negatively. It’s therefore to each person’s advantage in each “house” to be a deliberate, positive part of this development.

Yet, this doesn’t always happen. Some of us don’t want to mentor the new firefighters, by choice or by DNA, because “that’s the training officer’s job, and we’re not getting paid to do it.” Or we may not know our jobs well enough; don’t know how to teach effectively; or are just too negative about everything, killing the learning experience. Our desire to overcome these attitudes and shortcomings and the effort made to do so speak volumes about one’s character, even if the outcome seems disappointing. We expect the same qualities in our young lions, who learn from us every moment. We are thus teaching something—about skills, attitude, integrity, effort—all the time.

So, if you are only paycheck-to-paycheck motivated, you are missing the essence of your calling here. Just going through the motions deprives you, your co-workers, and the public you serve of something more of yourself—a great deal more!

If you are the “new kid” in the firehouse, you may or may not currently receive the positive mentoring I discuss here that motivates you to explore your greater aspects in the context of your career. Don’t be discouraged; most of us haven’t, either. Nevertheless, I want you to evaluate yourself and to think in ways that will further your progress from the inside out.

If you’re a veteran firefighter, perhaps it’s time to evaluate your place here, too, and consider how you might improve from this point forward.

Whether you’re a new recruit embarking on your career, a veteran firefighter needing fresh motivation, or a“wise old salt” who loves to impart tried-and-true knowledge and skills to the up-and-coming, consider the following five questions. They can provide you with a basic outline for investigating the reasons for your choices thus far and offer some general suggestions for further development.

WHY ARE YOU HERE?

You must come to grips with your reasons for joining the fire service. These reasons shape your overall attitude. And even if you navigate well through training, your attitude will come forward and affect you and your co-workers in many ways.

You cannot view the fire service as just another job. It is an honorable and dangerous profession. As such, it mandates a commitment and a passion for excellence in every lesson, evolution, and scenario learned. Every incident and experience instructs us all; hence, we must use this collective learning and knowledge to keep each other and the customers we serve alive and healthy.

How you understand this commitment affects the development of the fire service character, its essential mission, and the public’s perception. It determines our overall effectiveness in mitigating other people’s emergencies. If we are not completely motivated toward the goal of positive incident resolution, it will be evident over time, if not immediately. A perpetual inner sense of dissatisfaction can lead to depression, bad attitudes, sloppy execution, accidents, and loss of life or limb.

You will not perform to the best of your ability with a halfhearted, lukewarm approach to any endeavor; nor will you learn from the experience. Such an approach here raises the obvious question of your overall commitment to the fire service.

You must know why you are here. When you answer that question completely and honestly, you will be motivated to execute the duties of this profession with a genuine sense of inner purpose, even if that motivation departs from the established status quo. That is and should truly be your purpose.

In your personal evaluation, continually weigh the inherent dangers of firefighting against your health, your family, and any other life goals. After each evaluation, if you are determined to stay the course and “re-up” your inner commitment, you will develop a better sense of who you really are and what you’re really made of in the context of this noble, tradition-filled setting.

However, if you honestly see a conflict between your deeper goals and where you are now in this profession, you must prepare for transitioning into your more heartfelt ambitions without regret, guilt, or denial—even if you’ve just arrived. Solid preparation and wisdom in this regard will help you to avoid hardship.

Of course, our unique schedules enable many of us to pursue a number of other dreams while remaining on the job. However, this may still not be enough. And that’s okay in the final analysis.

WILL YOU DO YOUR ABSOLUTE BEST?

Whatever your reasons for being here, determine to do your best. There is no substitute for persevering with excellence, despite exhaustion. This perseverance develops your stamina—the ability to execute your necessary duties well despite demanding circumstances. This is necessary for your fire service career and in your general “life walk.” Once you’ve established your work ethic, apply it to every task you perform, on the job and off. The way you do one thing is the way you do all things. Perform all tasks as well as you can, and strive to exceed your current limitations when circumstances demand it.

By continually applying yourself, you will grow in the right direction as you evaluate your limits vs. your efforts. Again, honesty is most important. Enhance and polish your strengths; overcome your weaknesses, especially if these weak areas are essential to your course. As you grow, use well what you gain from “the yard.”

The various fire service disciplines are a vast realm of knowledge and skills within which you can focus on specific areas in which to excel. Mastering these professional disciplines offers a multitude of career development options, giving you a greater appreciation of your craft and purpose.

Do your best. Don’t settle for personal mediocrity, even if those around you do. This will undercut your efforts, your attitude, and your inner determination. Someone should always have the greater desire and put forth the greater effort—let that someone be you!

CAN YOU FOLLOW ORDERS?

Take pride in your obedience to the fire service culture. You will have much to gain by leaving your ego at the door. If you are a recruit entering this profession without previous military training, you may not truly appreciate your new position within a paramilitary structure. However, your response to commands is extremely important. If your personality and background do not take too kindly to direct orders, you will need to modify them. If you really have a problem with taking orders, seek counseling immediately. Every area of life requires that we take counsel with or listen and answer to someone with authority over us.

However, in a short time you will undoubtedly understand what your position here is not! You are not running things, and the buck does not stop with you. But you are in charge of yourself, especially your mouth, which should be silent for the most part. You are responsible for your actions, which should reflect the orders given you and your personal inner goals of development.

Your initial role here is that of an obedient observer—taking in and understanding your chosen profession and culture. Allow yourself to learn, instead of surrendering to any inner desire to let yourself be known. Allow your professional and personal actions to speak for you through a solid work ethic and decent character. This will impress more than anything else.

WILL YOU TAKE CHARGE OF YOUR HEALTH?

In your assigned station house, look around and note how many seasoned firefighters appear to be out of shape, and determine that you will never follow their example. Your life and the lives of your family and co-workers may depend on it. Your profession obligates you to always extend beyond yourself. Your co-workers and your customers depend on your best efforts to assist in the positive resolutions of the emergencies you face. Good health practices are necessary for you to do your best. But this is much too often overlooked within our rank and file.

Physical strength, cardiovascular fitness, and good respiratory development are all essential to your overall effectiveness. The requirements of demanding incidents always reinforce the necessity to be fit and ready. This is important not only for you but for your co-workers, the incident, and your family.

Eating well is another essential component of good health. Research, prepare, and maintain a diet suitable for your optimum needs. Understand your own body. Listen to it, and accommodate its demands with reasonable balance.

This commonsense health advice is certainly not new. But, we always need to be reminded of what we ought to do to sustain the common and reasonable goals of a happy, healthy, and long life. As members of the fire service, we need to be especially motivated to maintain a consistent and solid program of good health practices and consider them an integral part of our work ethic.

Most firehouses have gyms or some sort of workout area that usually only a small percentage of personnel use. This is a poor reality, particularly for our profession, and says that we are generally lazy about our health. No doubt, our station downtime lends itself to our having a more productive attitude concerning fitness. So do better!

Take advantage of treadmills for running and walking and whatever weight-lifting system the department, the union, or a charitable organization has purchased or donated for the “house.” Using these items provides a good and basic routine for fitness development. I also suggest incorporating a few Eastern holistic practices into your conventional workouts as well. Add to your normal routine, for example, yoga for supple strength, flexibility, and extreme breath and body control. This will drastically reduce stress and increase mindfulness while you are at rest or when under pressure.

Be good to yourself. Look around you and see how easy it is to fall gradually (and sometimes not so gradually) into physical disrepair. Then pledge to yourself a commitment to fitness.

CAN YOU FACE YOUR FEARS AND LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKES?

As I said, I was very scared when I began my night tours at the firehouse, wondering if I’d ever get over it. I also carried my fears with me into my first set of fires (day and night) and when I finally drove the attack pumper to a confirmed structure fire.

I gradually overcame fear’s paralyzing adverse effects by using its energy to focus on and accomplish each task at hand. But I assure you, throughout my career, fears continued to arise, and I made mistakes.

Time heals all wounds, and it may take you some time to get used to being a firefighter. This will come with training as you build confidence in your innate abilities and master your use of the equipment and apparatus.

As you grow, remember that you should always regard the consistent confidence-building applications with a healthy respect for caution and alertness. Your fears remind you to maintain that respect. This not only fosters a healthy and safe approach to the arduous and hazardous conditions you’ll undoubtedly face but also compensates for the cockiness that may exist on the other side of your inner pendulum.

Believe that you will work through your fears to become the journeyman you intend to be. No doubt, circumstances arise throughout the course of a career that may paralyze the best of us. This is life. But it’s the next set of steps we take that determines who we are ultimately. Your character is in your preparation and resilience. When you work hard to understand and execute the demands of your craft with excellence, the confidence you develop will overcome much fear.

•••

My little list certainly does not exhaust the possible questions incoming firefighters might ask themselves. But it is a helpful start in encouraging you to reflect on your purpose here. This is a serious job!

Remember, we learn best by doing—mistakes and all—but the key is doing. Finally, believe in yourself, not just in what you learn how to do but also in who you are when you do it!

BRIAN K. JOHNSON SR. is a retired deputy chief of the Pleasantville (NJ) Fire Department.

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