Setting Probationary Firefighters’ Expectations

BY STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI

If you are a company officer who recently has had a probationary firefighter assigned to you, you are in for a challenging and exhausting process if you do not acquaint the probie with your expectations up front. During the recruit academy, most fire departments teach their probationary firefighters how to do the manipulative skills and how to survive around the firehouse, but it is almost impossible to teach them how to successfully work with every company officer, especially since there are usually a number of company officers and each has a personal management style, good or bad.

Although each fire department has rules and regulations with which firefighters are expected to comply, each company officer has a different style and manner of doing things they expect their company members, especially probationary personnel, to follow. It makes things flow more smoothly when officers share their expectations with the probationary firefighter on their team. The probie has a tough enough time trying to complete the probationary period, let alone having to worry about the idiosyncrasies or the nuances of every company officer with whom he will work. Why keep your expectations a secret?

Whenever I am assigned to a new supervisor, one of the first things I want to do is sit down and find out as much as I can about him: what is expected of me and what I need to do to be successful, his pet peeves, what makes him tick, and what he likes and dislikes. I am not doing this to kiss up but to ensure that I start off and continue on the right foot.

The last thing my supervisor wants to hear is, “I didn’t know you didn’t like my doing that,” or “You never told me you didn’t want me to do that.” As a supervisor, those are also the last things I want to hear from my personnel. If I am hearing them, then shame on me for not sitting down with my personnel the first time we started to work together and going over what I expect of them. That is also a great time to find out what they expect of you.

Expectations are a two-way street; try not to forget that. Find out what they expect of you, and do your best to live up to those expectations over the course of your working together. Hopefully, they provide realistic, reasonable, and reachable expectations. Expecting you to let them watch television every afternoon, as opposed to training, performing company inspections, and so on, is not a reasonable expectation.

When I was a captain and I was assigned a probationary firefighter to work with, one of the first things I did was meet with the probie and pass out the following information to ensure we were both on the same page and to ensure the success of the probationary firefighter.

PROBATIONARY FIREFIGHTER EXPECTATIONS

Welcome to our department! The purpose of this information is to ensure that we are on the same page. Whether on the fireground or at the fire station, it is paramount that we safely and competently perform and accomplish the duties expected of us. So that you know where I am coming from, here are my two most important goals for each shift as well as my general expectations:

1 To allow each of us to go home safely at the end of our shift.

2 To impart knowledge that will assist you in your daily operations and with your fire service career. My job is to provide you with the necessary information so that someday you either take my position or be the best firefighter you can be. Whether you want to promote or not is up to you. Even if you decide to remain a firefighter, you still have an obligation to assist our team in getting the job done and, even more importantly, passing your knowledge and experience on to our newest firefighters so they can one day do the same to other firefighters.

If you are functioning as the firefighter or engineer,

I expect you to …

  • Be familiar with all aspects of your apparatus.
  • Know how to operate and use every piece of equipment on the apparatus.
  • Be considerate of local neighbors when performing your apparatus or equipment checkout.
  • Ensure that our apparatus is wiped down at the end of our shift. Cleaning the windows, tires, hand tools, power tools, and other equipment is to be performed as needed. These chores are not “busy work.” They are typically tasks that need to be done on a regular basis.
  • Know your first-due district streets, target hazards, and other unique and related items that may be of importance. I also expect you to be familiar with your second-due district streets and target hazards. I don’t expect you to know every single street in your second-due district, but I think you should know every street in your first-due district after at least a year at the station.
  • Ask me questions whenever you are not sure about your assignment or duties.
  • Advise me of any special needs, whether they are related to training, department business, or personal business. I consider myself very flexible if you give me proper and adequate notice.
  • Perform the required daily and weekly station, apparatus, and equipment maintenance and checkouts that are necessary, without my having to ask you to do so.
  • Put up or take down the flags if this has not been done (some stations have lit flag poles; thus, this is not an issue). Also, when taking down the flags, please fold them in the proper and respectful way they are intended to be folded.
  • Leave the station, apparatus, and equipment in excellent condition for the oncoming crew.
  • Check for the presence of a T-card in the morning during your apparatus and equipment checkout. If it has not yet been completed, please take the time to complete one. Note: A “T-Card” is a T-shaped card that lists the names of the assigned personnel of the specific apparatus and is used as an accountability tool at major incidents.
  • Be familiar with the Fire Department Rules and Regulations, Policy Manual, Training Manuals, and Automatic-Aid/Mutual-Aid binders. They are there for a reason, and they will guide us in our everyday activities.
  • Always “keep me in the loop.” I hate surprises.
  • Know the address and cross street of every department facility, including what types of equipment and staffing are at each facility.
  • Know how to get from one fire station to another. The time we get a move-up to another fire station is not the time to have to ask, “How do we get there?”
  • Eat breakfast prior to getting to the station in case we have to leave immediately.
  • Listen to the county fire radio during the day so that you are aware of what the other resources in our department are doing at all times. Knowing that our normal second-due engine is on an emergency medical services (EMS) call or out of service because it is at the shop (or our truck and rescue are unavailable because of a Special Operations training session) can make a major difference in our responses (because we might have to go into their areas) as well as our strategy and tactics.
  • Know the names and assignments/duties/responsibilities of all personnel, especially all chief officers. This includes not just the suppression personnel but also the personnel assigned to headquarters or other department facilities. There is nothing worse than not knowing whom to contact for various issues that may come up in the course of our employment. This will definitely be one of your tougher things to accomplish, since we don’t always interact with many of the other personnel employed by our department. Remember that Rome wasn’t conquered in a day; this will be an ongoing process!
  • Last but not least, I expect you not to know everything! Every one of us should strive to continue learning at least one new thing every day of our life! The day we think we know it all is the day we’re opening up ourselves to failure and to letting Murphy’s Law take over.

If you are functioning as the engineer,

I expect you to …

  • Know the vehicle code and department policies related to driving apparatus.
  • Know the limitations and specifications of your apparatus.
  • Know where you are going prior to leaving the station (when dispatched to a call). I sincerely feel it is the driver’s responsibility, not my responsibility, to get the crew to the street on which we are responding. Once we are on the street, then I will zero you into the exact location. If that means meeting up with me in the office to look at the run card or looking at the digital map before we leave the station, then so be it.
  • Let me know ASAP of any deficiencies that you noted during your daily Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) pretrip inspection.
  • Actually do the COMPLETE DMV pretrip inspection every day, which includes the air brake check, checking under the cab in the engine compartment area, and checking the play in the slack adjusters.

If you are functioning as the firefighter (riding in the back seat),

I expect you to …

  • Let the engineer know (either through the headset or by knocking twice on the glass) that you are secured in your seat and ready to go.
  • Not get off the apparatus until you hear the air brakes and either hear me say it is okay to get off or see me in the process of getting off.

If you are functioning as the paramedic,

I expect you to …

  • Treat every patient as if he were your best friend or a family member.
  • Know your County EMS Protocols.
  • On vehicle accidents, immediately let me know how many patients we have and what priority they are (immediate, delayed, minor, deceased). This will allow me to call for the appropriate additional resources.
  • Do not ask me for an estimated time of arrival (ETA) for the ambulance; it will get here when it gets here. Also, I’ve seen too many paramedics ask for ETAs when they don’t want to implement a treatment modality. Do what is right at that moment for the patient. An ETA really doesn’t do anything for us anyway, especially since we are set up to provide paramedic-level care to our patients.
  • Do not have any expired items (medications, monitor patches, and so on) on the apparatus. If it is expired, then it needs to be pulled off ASAP.
  • Let me know ASAP of any deficiencies with regard to your EMS equipment.

General Fire Department Expectations

Following these expectations will help to make you a better firefighter.

1 If you open it, CLOSE IT!

2 If you turn it on, TURN IT OFF!

3 If you unlock it, LOCK IT!

4 If you break it, REPAIR IT! (And report it to me ASAP.)

5 If you can’t fix it, CALL IN SOMEONE WHO CAN!

6 If you borrow it, RETURN IT!

7 If you use it, TAKE CARE OF IT!

8 If you make a mess, CLEAN IT UP!

9 If you move it, PUT IT BACK!

10 If it belongs to someone else, GET PERMISSION TO USE IT!

11 If you don’t know how to operate it, LEAVE IT ALONE!

12 If it doesn’t concern you, DON’T MESS WITH IT!

It might seem as if I am expecting a lot of you. Please understand where I am coming from. My goal is to set you up for success with the department. The training you received in the academy was just scratching the surface with regard to your knowledge base. Although you still have a great deal of knowledge and experience to gain, I want to at least allow you to see where I am coming from and what I expect of you.

Your goal should be to be a “low-maintenance” firefighter/engineer for any of the captains with whom you work (just as my goal was to be a “low-maintenance” captain for my battalion chief, now it is to be a “low-maintenance” deputy chief for my assistant chief).

I don’t think I’m asking too much of you or that I have high expectations of someone in your position. All I am doing is challenging you to be the best that you can be for the department and the customers we provide service to; I don’t think that is asking too much of you or asking you to do anything that is out of line.

Why am I doing this? Because the customers we serve deserve the best, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that they get the best level of service that we can provide. Short and sweet—just do your job, be responsible and accountable for your actions (or nonactions), and have fun! This is the greatest job in the world that I can think of, and we need to make the best of it.

Thanks for taking the time to listen; your assistance and effort in meeting these expectations are appreciated! If at any time you have any questions or concerns, or if I can be of assistance to you in any way, please feel free to contact me. Good luck with your probationary period!

SOME CAUTIONS WHEN SETTING YOUR EXPECTATIONS

Some key points to remember when putting your expectations down on paper and discussing them with your probationary firefighter follow:

1 Ensure they are legal and you are not asking anyone to do anything illegal. You are probably thinking, why did I include that statement? Well, I did so, just as a reminder, if for no other reason.

2 Ensure they are reasonable. It is okay to have high expectations, but are they reasonable? I am the first to say that mediocrity is not acceptable and should not be the norm. However, I have been known to have high expectations. Although I do not think that it is necessarily a bad thing in itself, I do have to come down to reality on occasion to ensure I am not expecting too much from the average person and that I am being reasonable.

3 Ensure they are fair, and treat everyone equally. This is easier said than done, I know. To help eliminate any chances of being called someone who plays favorites and gives people special treatment, remember you need to be fair and treat everyone equally. Some management and leadership experts will probably disagree with that statement, and it can probably be successfully argued favorably and unfavorably, but it is what it is.

4 Ensure they are ethical. If you do not know the definition of ethics by now, please look up the word and have a definition you can offer others. As a supervisor, it is paramount that you understand ethics and practice ethical behavior at all times. It is also important that you stress the importance of ethics to your personnel.

5 Ensure they are within the culture of your department. Every department has a slightly different culture. By the time you make supervisor, you should have a pretty good idea of your department culture and what is acceptable and not acceptable.

6 Ensure they are within the department guidelines, rules, regulations, policies, and procedures. If you are asking things of your personnel that are in violation of your department guidelines, you are setting them up for failure and you are not acting within your department’s expectations.

7 Talk to other company officers and chief officers and see if they have their own set of expectations; doing so will expose you to what others are doing, if anything. You may learn some things you want to add to your list.

8 Don’t hesitate to share your expectations with other company officers and chief officers, and encourage them to take what they feel is appropriate for their situation. Don’t hide your information; share it with others who may benefit—that’s what the fire service is about.

9 Continuously evaluate what you have documented to ensure you are up-to-date and covering what you feel should be covered. If you’re doing your job, you should be adding or modifying your expectations every time you work with a new probationary firefighter and have experienced situations you may need to cover with future probationary firefighters.

10 Make sure they get a copy of your expectations to keep and use as a reference if they have questions. Encourage them to share your expectations with other probationary firefighters who may have to work with you in the future; that way, they’ll know what to expect.

11 Consider having them sign a copy for your records, to ensure they understand what is expected of them. At the bare minimum, document in your personal journal (you do keep one, don’t you?) that on such and such a date you discussed them with the probationary firefighter.

12 Now that you document your expectations, don’t forget to hold your probationary firefighter accountable! Failing to do so will make your expectations worthless.

Have your personnel expectations written out to distribute the first time you work with a probationary firefighter. Going over your expectations on the first day will set everyone up for success.

Do not set expectations only for probationary firefighters. Whether you are a company officer or a chief officer, there is a good chance you are responsible for supervising at least one person. Take the time to develop your set of expectations and discuss them on the first day you are assigned to work with that person. By discussing my expectations with a new member on the first day, I rarely find myself asking the probationary firefighter why he did what he did when he knew I expected differently.

STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI is a deputy chief for the Santa Clara County (CA) Fire Department and has served in the fire service for more than 20 years. He has been an adjunct faculty member at the Chabot College (CA) Fire Technology Program since 1993, is a past president of the Northern California Training Officers Association, and was named the 2008 California Fire Instructor of the Year. He is a state-certified master instructor, has a master’s degree in emergency services administration, is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy, and has received Chief Fire Officer Designation through the Commission on Professional Credentialing. He has authored numerous articles in fire service publications such as Fire Engineering and is a speaker at fire service events across the country, including FDIC.

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