“I WISH THEY HAD TOLD ME”: SIMPLE THINGS TO HELP you through the FIRST YEAR

BY STUART GRANT AND LES STEPHENS

Several articles have been written about atitudes and motivation to get new employees through their training during Recruit School. Much has been stated about study habits, time management, and dedication to getting through school. But, have you ever gotten a new recruit at your station and wondered, “Just what are they teaching these guys in school”? Do they even talk about life at the fire station? Jess Anderson’s “The Rookie’s Survival Guide” (Fire Engineering, August 2005) was a great article. The November 2005 Roundtable had advice from officers as they see it. But, it doesn’t matter if you are the station officer or a two-year tailboard firefighter or somewhere in between, it seems there is always something the training guys left out for the latest batch of recruits.

Jess Anderson hit the nail on the head with his advice and guidance to new probationary firefighters. Neither he nor I am talking about how to tie a figure 8 knot; what to pump to a 150-foot, 1 3/4-inch line; or how to raise a ladder using the right angle beam raise. The things we are referring to are the abstract and maybe not so abstract tidbits of information veteran firefighters know will help probationary firefighters be successful at the station-the simple things they don’t seem to know. They include things like use a liquid disinfectant to clean the latrines, so it doesn’t take two shifts for the dry powder cleanser to wash down the drain; don’t show up 15 minutes before your shift starts; it is your job to put up the flags; don’t argue if it is your turn to swing; don’t be the last one up from the table to do the dishes-and the list goes on.

As we reflect back on our careers, some of us had a very distinct advantage: We were in our late teens when we got hired, and everyone automatically assumed we didn’t know anything; they weren’t that far off. The benefit to us was that most of us got assigned to a station with several “old heads” and a couple of guys the rookies feared. We got all these little tidbits spoon fed to us or, should I say, beat into us over the course of the next couple of years.

Fast forward 10 to 15 years and a couple of promotions later, and we now find ourselves on the other end of the spoon. Most of the time, we find a way to get our message across and have a little fun at the new recruits’ expense. The downside to this is that some people don’t respond as well to this approach as we would like. There are those who don’t take constructive criticism well, others who have never had anyone tell them what to do, and still others who just don’t have the horsepower to get it all in one dose. These are the people we are constantly reminding that “it takes a career to earn a good reputation and only one shift to get a bad one.”

A few years ago, we began to discuss with the Garland (TX) Training Division ways to help the rookies get some of this information prior to their first day at the station. What we came up with was a plan to set aside two hours at the end of rookie school. The top recruit from the last class would come down and tell the recruits the things he learned in his first year on the job that we hadn’t taught him in recruit school but he wished we had. We had been doing this for a few years when another friend suggested that we ask those same individuals to put their thoughts and suggestions on paper so that we could share them with recruits outside our departments. We carried this project from the Garland Fire Department to the Dallas Fire-Rescue, Lewisville, and McKinney Fire Departments in Texas. A compilation of those letters follow.

Casey Grimes, firefighter/paramedic,
Garland (TX) Fire Department

As a recruit, and throughout your career, attitude and motivation are the keys to success in the fire service. Your attitude and your actions should show your dedication to your profession. Regardless of how small the task, always take great pride in the work you do.


(1) Mop up the tracks from the wheels after the apparatus is backed in the station. (Photos by authors.)

You should always arrive no later than 0600 hours. Bring in the daily newspaper from the yard. Make the morning coffee (three heaping tablespoons is usually acceptable). Unload or load the dishwasher, whichever applies. Empty and clean the tea container, and boil water for tea. You can clean the kitchen sinks and cabinets, restock the paper towel bin, prepare the mop bucket for the day, straighten the living room, and empty all the trash you can without disturbing the bedroom. The key is to stay busy!


(2) Hook up the exhaust removal devices.

Normally by 0645, you will have your apparatus assignment. Check all your gear, and place it on your assigned apparatus. Place your Personal Identification Tag (PIT) on the Company Responder Board and find the helmet tags. These are usually on the seat of the apparatus or on the station mailbox. Always check with the driver of your apparatus to make sure your help is not needed before you begin cleanup.


(3) Restock the apparatus after each run so that you always have an appropriate supply on the apparatus.

First, clean all the restrooms, beginning with the toilets. This includes sinks, mirrors, trash emptied, everything restocked, floors swept and mopped. After the restrooms are cleaned, empty any remaining trash, make all beds, straighten the bedroom area if needed, and vacuum all carpeted areas. Once all this is complete, double check with the driver if any help is needed on the apparatus or in the bay.

If all is complete, go to the kitchen to help with breakfast. Help cook, set the table, or whatever is needed. When new to a station, always ask where an open seat is at the table. Regardless of the meal, always be the last to sit and the first to finish. Eat quickly, and be the first up to do dishes. After each meal, stack the chairs, and sweep and mop the kitchen floor. When cleanup is completed, go to the apparatus bay and learn your apparatus. Become familiar with all the aspects of each piece of equipment. Knowing where everything is located and how to use it is invaluable when you are on-scene and in the public eye.

Between the hours of 1100 and 1300 is a period commonly referred to as “nap time.” This is a great time for recruits. Most people take naps, so this offers a great opportunity to study. If you have a family of your own, taking this time to study at the station will definitely work to your advantage. All the rules that apply to breakfast and lunch also apply to dinner.

After dinner, things begin to wind down. This is another great time to study or to work out. Do not be the first to go to bed. If possible, be the last to do so. Before retiring to bed, straighten all areas of the station, throw any leftover food away, start the dishwasher, lock all doors/gates, and turn off all lights. Try to sleep lightly your first few shifts just to get accustomed to the routine. Wake up by 0600 hours.

Repeat your routine from the morning before: make coffee, get the newspaper, etc. If you have been properly relieved, you may go home at 0700.

In addition to the prescribed daily routine, be ready to assist in the following situations:

  • Spot the apparatus with radio in hand, as needed or directed by your officer/driver.
  • Help when citizens visit the station needing blood pressures checked or information.
  • Help with visits from or to day-care facilities or schools.
  • Mow on Tuesday and Friday.
  • Degrease apparatus on Thursday.
  • Perform heavy station cleanup on Saturday.

If you follow these suggestions, you should do well. Keep your head held high, work hard, ask questions, be assertive, meet and greet everyone with enthusiasm, and be proud of your accomplishments. You have chosen the BEST job in the world. It has only just begun for you. Congratulations, and good luck.

Lonnie Bolles, firefighter/paramedic,
Garland (TX) Fire Department

What makes one rookie stand out from the rest? In a word, character. Your character is put to the test while you are a rookie. Clean the bathrooms, mop the floor, vacuum, make the beds, do the dishes, wash the engine, sweep the bay, and heaven help you if you sit down for dinner before everyone else is seated. These are all tests of your character. Are you going to complain about having to do the work? Are you taking the initiative to get the work done before someone else has to do it? Are you taking pride in having the shiniest toilets in the department?

If you think about it, you are walking into someone’s house, and they have no idea of who you are. You have to prove you are worthy to sit with them. As a rookie, you do this by not sitting. If a dish hits the sink, you’d better be there. If the tires of the engine make a mark on the stall floor, you’d better be there with a mop. The work you do, and the quality of that work, will make you stand out.

When the work is done (it’s never done for a rookie), you study. You need to know everything about every piece of equipment at your station, from a bandage on the ambulance to hose on the engine. As a rookie, you should ask questions and put your hands on everything. I guarantee that you’re going to ask a question about something that everyone has forgotten, and it will make them refresh their skills and knowledge, too.

Steve Calderon, firefighter/paramedic
Dallas (TX) Fire-Rescue

Although there are various opinions on what a good rookie is, just take into consideration two objectives. The first and most important one is attitude! With a good attitude, everything will eventually fall into place. The second one is just basically doing your duties at the station.

Attitude. Have a good attitude. If you look at this job as just another job, it might be difficult to get through a shift. If you look at this job as one of the best jobs out there, it will be much easier to get through every shift. A good attitude also will enable you to develop a good mentality. A good mentality will enable you to develop some initiative at the station, and you will not have to depend on everyone’s telling you what must be done all the time. If you think ahead, you will be ahead. Think: What needs to be done? What hasn’t been done? Then, do it. Remember, it’s not hard unless you think it’s hard or make it hard.

Station Duties. Get to the station early. By the way, this is not real work; this is only housework. The faster you do the work, the faster you’re done. Make sure you bring in the newspaper and make coffee. Some stations drink it throughout the day. Be sure to find out. Change out your personal protective equipment, and check out your equipment and the apparatus equipment (water jug, flares, kitty litter, EMS equipment, saws, generator, and so on). Be sure to put the flag up and to take the flag down. Do the laundry, clean the restrooms, sweep and mop the station and apparatus bay. Be sure to put the required reports in the computer and keep up with the runs in the computer. Don’t let them get behind. Always ask the cook if he needs some help. After eating, be up and either wash, dry, sweep, or mop. You should do one every time. Always remember, keep a smile.

A couple of pointers: Every station is different. Listen to the guys; they know a lot more than you do about the job. Be curious around the station. When you see someone checking out the equipment, ask questions, but don’t be a know-it-all. Be the first one to start station tasks and special projects. Most important, have respect for everyone, not just the officers.

Zane Krempin, firefighter/paramedic,
Dallas (TX) Fire-Rescue

First of all, being called a “rookie” is a good thing. Like most, I am sure you have waited at least two years or so to get this job and beat out a few hundred people in the process. Thousands of men and women would love to be in your shoes. So don’t forget you are a rookie and they are not! Think about this: The academy is not called “firefighter school” or “fire academy”; it is called “rookie school.” There is a good reason for this: You are a “rookie.” This is a very important concept for you to understand, since you will be called a rookie for the next few years. So you must accept it and be proud of it.

Let’s talk about your attitude. It means everything-and I mean everything. If your attitude stinks, so will you. If you paid attention to your instructors in rookie school, you should know what is expected of you when you begin to work at the firehouse. So, I will not bore you with the day-to-day tasks you have to do. But, I do want you to understand how important it is that you get the job done. The most important reason is that the guys you work with will notice, and that is all you need to know. You will pay your dues just like the firefighters who went before you. All the old hats have their war stories of when they came out of school, and I can promise you that these days we have got it easy.

Second, know your apparatus. You need to know where everything is. I cannot stress this enough. Open all the doors; put the engine in pump gear; set the aerial ladder; and, most importantly, if you do not know what something is, ask a senior member right away. I can promise you this: You do not know everything you think you do. Do you know why? Because you are the rookie! I have not met a guy who wasn’t more than happy to help me out and answer my questions. There is nothing sweeter than being on the scene of a fire or an accident and knowing where something is and how it works. Just take the time every morning to get out there and know your equipment.

When on an emergency scene, whether it is a fire, a wreck, or a CPR, know your role. Talk with your officer at the beginning of the shift; ask what your role is. Every officer is different and expects slightly different things. So ask, Rookie! I have heard some stories of guys in my rookie class doing some stupid things that would never have happened if they had known what to do and what was expected.

One more thing I think is very important when you are working at a fire is that when something needs to be done, try to get in there and get it done. A lot of old hats do what comes naturally to them, and that’s to fight the fire. What I mean is, if a hole needs to be cut, you get the saw, and you cut the hole. If there is a nozzle down and no one on it, grab it, and go inside and fight the fire aggressively.

This is your best classroom. If you do not take advantage of good opportunities, you will miss out. Trust me, everyone is watching. If you are going to do something, do it at 100 percent. This is where you learn your craft and hone your skills. Be aggressive, pay attention to your surroundings, and have a positive attitude. The rest is a piece of cake. Enjoy your career. I know I will!

Chad Husbands, FF/NREMT-P/CPR coordinator,
McKinney (TX) Fire Department

I remember when I received the call that I had gotten the job at McKinney Fire Department. I was going on a guy’s weekend with my friends. We were traveling down the road when I received the call. The lady who called said that she was with McKinney Fire Department, and she asked how $38,000 a year sounded. I said, “It would do.” She laughed. I will remember that moment for the rest of my life.

My first day was on a Monday. I had talked with my father several times before this day, but it seems that the phone call I received that morning meant the most. He offered me encouragement and support, which he has done my whole life.

I arrived at the station, scared and excited, but mostly just scared. Were they going to like me? That was the question that rolled through my head, like it was the first day of school. My father’s words kept playing back in my mind, “Look them straight in the eyes and give a strong handshake, son.” As I was introduced through the department, I looked everyone straight in the eyes and gave a strong handshake. Things like that can give people an initial impression that can last for months, if not years. Everyone was very nice, but I still felt like an outsider.

Throughout the next several months as I got to be around the guys, I realized a couple of things. They loved to joke around and make fun of each other, and they also really loved their job. By now I am thinking that this is the career that I will have for the rest of my life.

Getting in the door was hard enough. I tried for several years to get hired. I would either fail the entrance exam or not receive a call back after a chief’s interview. So, I told myself that once I was in, I would give it 110 percent. I awoke each morning eager to get to work. Once I arrived, I was ready from 0630 to 0630 the next morning. I did all of the daily chores and checked off each piece of apparatus with a smile on my face. I made sure that I was busy all day, whether it was doing house chores or studying streets. I always made myself available to the other firefighters, captains, and battalion chiefs.

I was trying my best to impress these guys. I was giving everything I had each shift, but nothing seemed to be good enough. Whether we were on a job or just around the station doing daily training, they always found something wrong with what I did. What was going on here? They seemed to be a very negative group toward newcomers.

I didn’t understand at first why they kept trying to wear me down. Then it hit me! It is a brotherhood, and what does a brotherhood depend on more than anything? Trust. They were testing me to see if I would give up and quit. They needed to know that when the bad got worse that I would be there with them through it all, that when they needed someone by their side I could stand up to the challenge. I was trying to push my way in instead of letting them accept me in their own time. So, for them to get to know me I had to be me, all of me.

I then felt like I needed to bring something to the table to show these guys who I was. I had an extensive background in EMS. I thought that this would be beneficial to me in trying to show the guys of my crew that I could contribute when it came to working out in the field. I knew since I was a rookie firefighter just out of the academy that I could not wow them with things on the fireground the way I could in the back of the ambulance. It worked! They appreciated the knowledge I had when it came to medicine, which, in turn, inspired them to help me when it came to firefighting.

I finished my rookie year without any major bumps or bruises, and I continue to work hard in my job. If I were to list certain things that helped me enter into a profession that I literally adore, they would be work hard every day, try to bring something to the table, allow the guys time to accept you, and don’t get discouraged!

Mike Clark, firefighter/EMT,
Garland (TX) Fire Department

Don’t let anyone outwork you. Stay busy. Don’t offer your opinion. You will hear phrases like this over and over. Here are a few other suggestions that might help your probation go more smoothly.

The hardest part of fitting in with the guys is to find the right balance between letting them know who you are and being a “habitual line stepper.” The key word is “relax.” Don’t give too much information, because that will come back to bite you later. Don’t be scared and keep to yourself, because then they won’t like you. Stay where you can see them because they are waiting to get something done and will blame you for not helping. I found it was easier to try to get to know crew members individually. Look for opportunities, especially with the driver, to talk and be yourself.

You will have to cook for these guys, whether you know how to or not. Keep in mind the following scale: quantity on one side and quality on the other. If you are going to go cheap, you had better have a ton of food. Be careful here: Too many noodles in the goulash to where the meat looks like pepper seasoning will not go over well. If you go too high in quality, everyone will enjoy the few bites while they last and then starve the rest of the shift. As a rookie, nothing you cook will make them happy. Accept it, and have fun.

Don’t let anything get to you. Laugh it off, and show them you are here to have fun. If you start letting them get to you, it won’t stop-it will get worse. If you don’t add fuel to the fire, they will have less material to use to pick on you. As a whole, nothing you do will be right. Don’t take it seriously and get your feelings hurt. It is a trial process for them to feel you out. Show them you can take it, and have fun.

Jeremy Jones, firefighter,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

  • Keep the apparatus bay clean, and always mop up the tracks. Take pride in your station.
  • Keep the rigs clean, and know your equipment.
  • Do not sit down; stay busy!
  • Be early, and be the first to start the tea, coffee, towels, and unload the dishes. If you arrive 15 minutes early, that is late. Strive to be there an hour early.
  • Always be the first to start station cleanup duties, and do not expect the others to help you. If they do, that’s great.
  • Be the first to start the morning checks.
  • Do not try to fit in; you will have to earn the respect of your peers.
  • Never tell someone teaching that what’s being taught is something you already know.
  • Be the last to go to bed; before you do, be sure everything around the station is done.
  • Do not be afraid to ask. It is better to ask and learn something than to go to a fire scene and not know what you are doing.
  • Remember that you are lucky to hold the position you have and there are thousands out there who want it. Take pride in what you do and who you are. It doesn’t matter if you are on duty or off duty; you are still representing the fire service.
  • You’re going to get a nickname. Don’t worry about it. It will just happen. Be sure the one you get is not a bad one that will last you your entire career, like “couch fungus.”

Mike Boatman, firefighter/paramedic,Plano (TX) Fire Department

There are a thousand things I could share with someone who is just beginning a career at the fire station. Many of them have been covered in other articles and even the letters written for this article. Instead of repeating some of the same information, I want to share a few things you may not have read or heard up to this point in your career.

• “Getting-along money”- try to follow me on this one. If someone told you that you could set aside $200 a year out of your salary for the sole purpose of making your life easier and your days at the fire station more enjoyable, wouldn’t you do it? Well, here is how it works. This $200 is for buying a frozen soft drink or milk shake for the crew when you are out inspecting in July or paying your portion of the cable bill each year or pitching in to purchase a new barbeque grill or television for the station. This $200 is for buying ice cream when you work overtime or for participating in station “coke rolls.” This is the money you buy steaks and shrimp out of when you do your last shift of paramedic intern ride-outs or promote to a new position within the department. This is the money you use to pick up a couple dozen doughnuts on the way to work or pay for the movie rental at the video store. Don’t be the guy that never has the money to pay “his share” of expenses around the station. One last thing: Always carry $20 in your bunker pants pocket. This way, you will be the one who can spring for refreshments after that 2 a.m. fire. As one of my old lieutenants used to say, “Money doesn’t weigh very much, so you can carry a bunch of it.”

• The guys at the station don’t want to hear your stories. They have their own stories. These are stories they have told for years; everyone knows how they end, and they tell them on a regular basis. It is better for you to learn their stories than to try to teach them yours.

• If you came from another department or a volunteer department prior to getting a job at a career department, don’t tell these guys how great it was or how they “did it” at your old department. They will gladly offer you the opportunity to return there if you think it was so great. The obvious point here is that you didn’t think it was all that great or you wouldn’t have applied for this job.

• If you were hired to be a “bubba,” be a bubba! Don’t worry about the brass and sucking up to everyone in a white shirt. You need to focus on making a good impression on the guys. If you are successful at that, they will help make sure the supervisors know.

• For the first few shifts, act like you are an unsolicited visitor in someone else’s home. You are! This is their house, and they have a way of doing things. You have to adapt to their way. They don’t have to adapt to you or accommodate you. If you mess this one up, it will be very difficult to recover.

• If they eat it, you eat it. If you don’t like it, eat it anyway. If they find out that you don’t like chicken, you will eat chicken every shift. If they find out you don’t like runny scrambled eggs, you will be subjected to them every shift. If you just eat it and shut up. you may not see it again for a month or more. Who knows? You may learn to like runny eggs. I did.

• Take your probationary period seriously, even if the guys around you try to convince you otherwise. You need to prepare for each probationary evaluation as if your career depends on it. It does. Don’t take naps. Study! Don’t wash your car. Study! Don’t play video games. Study! Don’t bring projects to the station to work on. Study! You will get your chance. Now is not the time.

• Be helpful. Do ALL the cleaning and most of the cooking. If you have never cooked before, call your mom, grandmother, or someone else you know; get a couple of recipes; and be ready to prepare them. Remember, it’s better to have too much than not enough. Learn how to enter EMS reports, inspection reports, the daily staffing. Start mowing the yard before anyone else, and be the last to quit. Wax the engine, even when it isn’t your shift’s turn. Put fuel in the engine every shift, even if it doesn’t need it. You are making a good impression-even better, you are building good work habits.

• Don’t be late! Ever! There is nothing worse than someone who can’t get to the greatest job in the world on time. I know “things happen.” That is OK once or twice in a career of 25 to 30 years, but not once a year. If you are always a half hour or more early, it won’t be hard to find someone to cover for you when you are running late. If you slide into the parking lot five minutes before every shift, no one will want to help you when you run late. This is a two-way street. If you like to be relieved early, you need to relieve your guy early. Seems pretty simple, but guys mess it up anyhow.

• Make up your own mind about everyone. Don’t let your captain or fishing buddy tell you whether or not to like someone. You should make up your own mind. You will want people to do this for you in the future.

Kristi Shepard, firefighter/paramedic,
Garland (TX) Fire Department

Oh what a feeling, the sense of accomplishment rookie firefighters feel after completing their fire training! Next comes the scary feeling of being the new rookie at your assigned station. With that title come many duties and responsibilities. Numerous brothers and sisters will be there to show you the ropes, what’s expected of you, and the written and unwritten rules. You have acquired a second family, a home away from home. Now the true journey begins: earning the respect of your fellow brothers and sisters.

I have personally experienced each of those feelings, possibly to an even greater magnitude than most. Why, you may ask? I am a female in a very physically demanding, male-dominated profession. The key is attitude. You have to go into the fire service knowing you are always going to have to prove yourself; it just comes with the job. Do it; do it without a negative attitude and with a smile, and you will gain respect. Do not expect preferential treatment because you are female. You chose the wrong profession for that. It will only single you out and make station life unbearable. Know going in you chose a male-dominated profession, but the guys are your newfound brothers, and it’s a great feeling with the right attitude!

I was given a very valuable piece of advice as a recruit: “Your first year as a rookie will follow you your whole career, so make a name for yourself, a positive one.” That doesn’t mean that once your year is up, you should stop working as hard or stop going that extra mile. A good work ethic will follow you throughout your career. A poor work ethic will not only give you a bad reputation, but you will see your name on every transfer list.

Always be first-first to answer the phone, to do the dishes, to empty the trash, to volunteer. Anticipate what needs to be done, and get it done before it needs to be done. Be assertive and eager to do and to learn. Ask questions: The more you ask, the more you will know. Become familiar with all aspects of each piece of equipment. Knowing where everything is located and how to use it is invaluable when you are on-scene and in the public eye. Take great pride in everything you do, even if it’s just cleaning the toilets.

As a rookie, and throughout your career, attitude and motivation are the keys to success in the fire service. Both your attitude and your actions should show your dedication to your profession. Regardless of how small the task, always take great pride in the work you do.

• • •

You have made it into the greatest career in the world, and the best part of it is just beginning. As a probationary firefighter, you have put forth a lot of energy and effort to get hired, to make it through recruit school, and to get to the front door of the fire station. Not only have you given of yourself, but those who support you have, too. Now is the time that it all pays off. If your probationary period is an unpleasant experience and you hate going to work, then you would have wasted all the time it took to get you here. But, if you go into your probationary period with a great attitude, with the excitement you had when you were issued your firefighting gear (you remember), and take what these firefighters have to say to heart, you will love going to work and really embrace the brotherhood/sisterhood of the fire service. You must remember that you are the “rookie” and that those around you have gone through the same thing. We were all rookies at one time. The firefighters who have written the above letters have done an outstanding job in their departments and have made terrific role models for new “probies” to follow.

STUART GRANT, a 27-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief with Dallas (TX) Fire Rescue. He is certified as a master firefighter and fire instructor with the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. He has served in many capacities within the department, including academy commander, haz mat officer, paramedic, and rope rescue member. He has been a H.O.T. instructor and speaker at FDIC and FDIC West and an instructor at Collin County Community College in McKinney, Texas, and at the Texas A&M University Municipal Fire School. He has two associate’s degrees and a bachelor’s degree in fire administration.

LES STEPHENS, a 15-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain with the Garland (TX) Fire Department. He is certified as a master firefighter and an instructor with the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. He has served as his department’s training instructor and is an instructor at Collin County Community College in McKinney, Texas, FDIC, FDIC West, and at Texas A&M University Municipal Fire School. He has an associate’s degree in fire protection from Tarrant County Community College.

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