BY CHARLES BRUSH
Probationary Firefighter New1 walks into the station, and hungry eyes stare. Fresh meat. Visions of pranks past, of finding the chow line, the water line, sky hooks, ventilation buckets, and the ever popular rendition of “remember when we started” (which grows more outlandish with every retelling). Yes, the scent of blood is in the water, and the sharks start circling.
Some fight it, many leave, and others survive with the thought of lying in wait for the next unsuspecting New who walks through the door. New never had a chance because no one ever explained what was expected of him for both the short and long term.
Well, this is a new day, and New has his own personal Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. If New follows the 10 Rights and Responsibilities cited below, and if the department adheres to them, only good things can follow.
RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES
- New has the right to know nothing and the responsibility to learn continuously until the day New leaves the fire service. “Ah, New doesn’t know what a forward lay is.” Guess what? New is not supposed to know. You and I are supposed to train New, instruct New, and build New’s confidence. If New knew what we knew, hell, New would be old.
- New has the right to ask questions and has the responsibility to remember the answers. “Darn that New, questions, questions, questions,” says Firefighter Lounge. When you hear that one, boys and girls, does anyone think that perchance Lounge is complaining because the answers do not appear through the dusty haze of training days past? Lieutenant Brilliant counters Lounge with, “Yup, a lot of questions, but never the same ones. New is like, well, what you used to be like, Lounge.”
- New has the right to know what is expected of him and the responsibility to meet those expectations. “Sorry to say, Cap, but New is not cutting it. New will not pass probation and should not be voted in,” says Engineer Whiplash. “Why do you say that Whip?” asks Captain Paper. “Well, as an example, just this evening I told New to take it easy and, well, New did just that! Why, when I was a probie, I was busy, busy, busy, doing everything I could to get with the program. New just watched a video on some infection whatever.”
“This is a New generation,” replies Paper. “New needs to know what you want done without any games.”
As Whip leaves the room, a quote from a famous TV star flashes through Paper’s head: “What a moroon.”
- New has the right to ask for help, evaluation, and guidance and has the responsibility to apply what he receives. The good book says, “Seek and ye shall find, ask and it shall be given …. ” Unfortunately, the good book is not the Firefighter 1 textbook. (Okay, folks, all together. Baritones with bravado, please.) “All we are saying (drum, drum, drum) is, “Give New a chance!” New is in fact every bit as alien to our environment as an alien would be to our world. The language must be learned; the quaint customs and the dangers of the environment must be taught.
- New has the right to screw up and the responsibility not to screw up the same thing more than once. Is New going to stumble on the path to firefighter enlightenment? Probably. The question is, “Will we look on New’s transgressions as diversions from the path or steps along the way?” Will Firefighter New err? Absolutely! Unlike the rest of us, Firefighter New is human-not the complex carbohydrate- and sugar-driven machine all of us think we are. Training, attitude, and empathy go a long way if applied with the right mix of mentoring and coaching. (Note the close similarity between the words “tormenting” and “mentoring.”)
- New has the right to become a member of the team and the responsibility to earn that membership. “You don’t get respect, you earn it” is a reasonable statement, but the missing component is most often overlooked. Okay, I have to earn respect, but how do I do it? The expectations for New must be reasonable, attainable, defined, explained, and-most importantly-known by all. From my perspective, if New comes in and bench presses the chief’s car and is over 6 feet 9 inches tall, respect comes naturally.
- New has the right to have a good time and enjoy the vocation and the responsibility to complete what he is assigned. When Firefighter New comes onboard, is there a probationary period with a list of training goals, a list of equipment with which he must become familiar, and certifications that he must attain? There sould be. Is New monitored and evaluated during this period, in the same way a coach would bring a new member onto a team? New should be. Does New have a clear understanding that completion of probationary goals is an absolute requirement for membership? What do you think the answer to this one should be?
- New has the right to be as safe as possible in a hazardous environment and the responsibility to avoid hostile environments. “Chief, this is a bad one,” says Lieutenant Favorite. “We got propane tanks venting, a house charged with smoke, a garage that’s blowing and going, and we have to get it now or never.”
“No problem, Lieutenant,” says the chief with conviction. “Send in the rookies; they don’t know any better.” Although properly trained and properly led rookies might resort to visual signals to indicate a concern with such an order, the higher issue is hostile vs. hazardous. Allow me to postulate, please. To me, a hazardous environment is one in which we know our capabilities and those of our equipment and the potential for harm. An example would be a diesel spill on concrete in January. A hostile environment is one in which we do not have a clue about our capability and the effectiveness of our equipment and the dangers within our environment. An example would be a fire where the concrete is melting, water has no effect, and the fire is coming toward you. All of us, New included, must know the signs of danger, be able to articulate them, and be able to escape.
- New has the right to wear the uniform and the responsibility to wear it proudly and reflect our professionalism. Firefighter New is issued departmental colors on successful completion of the Firefighter I course. New has proved he is able to walk the walk; talk the talk; and demonstrate learned abilities, skills, and knowledge in accordance with state standards. With the colors, New is told what the uniform means and of the implied trust that New will not dishonor it or the department. One of the biggest skeletons in our fire service closet is the profile of an arsonist-18 to 25 years old and a volunteer firefighter. This image must be changed, and we must be the ones to do it.
- New has the right to an opinion and to contribute to the improvement of the department and the responsibility to know when to keep his mouth in the fully closed and locked position after saying “Yes, Firefighter, Lieutenant, Captain, Chief.” Firefighter New is working with some of the seasoned hands, trying to be one of the troops. New expertly expounds on the fact that firefighting is a challenge of the young and that the old folks are liabilities around the station. The “old folks” New is working with decide to demonstrate that old age and treachery can beat youth and skill any day of the week. What happened? New wasn’t told that firefighters are sensitive with respect to age.
Since the preceding rights and responsibilities did not cover all of the issues, a second list of rights was needed. List B is hereby presented for your consideration:
- You have the right to a nickname, not of your choosing, that will follow you for all of your time in the service.
- You have the right to clean places on apparatus “where no one has gone before.”
- You have the right to get excessively wet at a time and place not of your choosing.
- You have the right to listen to the same stories over and over and over.
- You have the right to provide direct patient care to the unbathed.
- You have the right to do ventilations.
- You have the right to hold the hose, but “Don’t touch the #$#^$#^$ nozzle, kid.”
- You have the right to be New until another New comes along.
- You have the right to take abuse from those with the IQ of a parking meter.
- You have the right to say at any time or place, “Gee, Firefighter, Lieutenant, Captain, Chief, when I grow up I want to be just like you!”
- Retired Lebanon (NH) Captain Gary Johnson called every new member of the department “New,” the perfect name for Firefighter New in this article.
CHARLES BRUSH is chief of the Old Town (ME) Fire Department and a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer program.