Stepping Up: Orientation for the New Firefighter

By Ron Hiraki

As a company officer, you will periodically have a new firefighter join your crew. Usually, the firefighter has completed an academy or school prior to the first day on duty in the fire station. There are often specific outlines, schedules, and objectives for the new firefighter associated with a probationary or training period. A specific orientation for your station and your crew may not be part of the formalized process. Consequently, company officers may not think of conducting an orientation for the new firefighter.

 
A well designed orientation process for new employees can positively affect the new employee and the workplace. The Corning Glass Works Company has developed a model employee orientation program. Orientation there begins before the first day on the job and continues for more than a year. Corning not only gives new employees a tour of the building and introduces co-workers, but it also helps new employees find housing, understand the company’s mission statement, develop quality and productivity plans, and learn about continuing-education programs.
 
The Corning employee orientation program had the following results: (1) There was a 17 percent decrease in separations for employees of three years or less. (2) The time required to learn the job was reduced from six to five months. (3) For every dollar spent on orientation in the first year, Corning saved eight dollars. In the following years, the savings increased to $14 dollars for every dollar spent.1 The Corning program may be beyond the scope of the company officer. However, it does illustrate that a little time and effort now can save a great deal of time and money later, and can produce a more productive team member.
 
As a company officer in the fire station, you probably will not have an opportunity to conduct an uninterrupted orientation at a convenient time and leisurely pace. Therefore, you will have to address response-ready items first and other items at a later time. This is actually advantageous because it leads you to prioritize the most important items and spread the discussion over several shifts so you don’t “overload” the new firefighter. A good orientation should not a “single information dump” and yield just another checkmark on the list of things to do.
 
The items that should be discussed with the new firefighter in the orientation are specific to your fire department and your fire station. Those items may even be specific to you and your crew, based on your method of operation and expectations. Here are some items often included in new firefighter orientation.
 
MISSION READINESS
  • Your physical and mental fitness
  • Your personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • The station, apparatus, and equipment
 
MAKE THE PROBATIONARY OR NEW FIREFIGHTER FEEL WELCOMED
  • Introduce the firefighter to all other members.
  • Assign a dorm room/clothing locker, food locker, PPE storage locker, and parking space.
  • Show the firefighter where equipment and supplies are kept.
  • Show the firefighter where records and reports are kept.
  • Show the firefighter how to operate the phone/intercom systems.
  • Assign an experienced firefighter as a coach or “go-to person.”
  • Provide information about how to contact the union representative.
 
TECHNOLOGY
  • Computers and printers to use.
  • Signing on (and off) computers. Creating and changing passwords.
  • Use of e-mail, records management, and other programs specific to your fire department.
 
DAILY ROUTINE
  • Communicate with the person you are relieving and the person who is relieving you.
  • Check and inventory apparatus; review what to check and how to report anomalies.
  • Station duties
  • Training
  • Fire prevention and public education duties
  • Learn what needs to be done, and then do it without being told.
 
EMERGENCY RESPONSES AND INCIDENTS
  • Apparatus: Station door operation, disconnecting “shore” power and exhaust collection systems.
  • Watch and stay with officer or other experienced firefighter.
  • Types of responses and what equipment to bring.
  • After an incident is over, review restocking or preparing for the next incident.
  • On returning to quarters ask yourself, “What did I learn?” Every response or incident builds your experience.
 
BEHAVIORS THAT ARE EXPECTED
  • Behaviors the department expects from the new firefighter.
  • Duties and tasks the firefighter should be able to perform NOW without prompting.
  • Watch and learn.
  • When in doubt, ask.
  • Follow up and follow through for good teamwork.
     
BEHAVIORS THAT DEMONSTRATE INITIATIVE
  • Be the first to get up to start a task and the last to sit down.
  • Do extra cleaning or straightening up of the station, apparatus, and equipment.
  • Answer the phone or door.
  • Ask other members if they need help.
     
  • Some tasks the firefighter is expected to know and do (those taught in the academy).
  • Other tasks we will show you once or will do a walk-through with you. The firefighter should be able to perform them the next time.
  • Don’t be afraid to make a mistake unless it is an obvious safety item.
  • Do not repeat the same mistake or wrong answer.
 
PROBATIONARY OR NEW FIREFIGHTER TRAINING PROGRAM           
  • The outline, syllabus, schedule.
  • Quarterly or monthly exams.
  • Signing off the training checklist (do once or when new competency is demonstrated).
 
PROBATIONARY OR NEW FIREFIGHTER PERFORMANCE EVALUATION       
  • Procedure and logs or reports.
  • What the firefighter will be evaluated on and the rating categories or standards.
 
ASK THE NEW FIREFIGHTER
  • Tell us about yourself.
  • What do you expect from us?
  • After your initial training or probation, what can we do for your career development?
This is not meant to be an all-inclusive list. Ask firefighters who have less than a year in the fire department what items they would have liked to have discussed during the first month to help them get started.
 
As a company officer, you have a direct responsibility and opportunity for conducting the orientation. As a chief officer, you have a greater responsibility and opportunity for ensuring that an orientation is conducted. Here are a few of the direct benefits of an orientation:
 
  • With a better understanding of the job, the new firefighter can recognize the needs of the company officer and help the officer perform tasks (e.g., reporting missing or damaged equipment.).
  • When new firefighters are given specific parameters (e.g., Feel free to open compartments and to look at and handle any equipment, just be sure to put it back exactly as you found it. Ask if you have questions or need help.) or a specific goal (e.g., Memorize the location of all equipment on the ladder or truck company.), they can work or learn independently. Therefore, the officer does not have to spend excessive time with the new firefighter. 
  • When expectations and procedures are communicated in the beginning, the extra work of critiquing and taking corrective action is greatly reduced.
 
Some company officers may feel that a detailed orientation is “micromanaging”; others may simply “like to see what the new firefighter is made of.” You are demonstrating good leadership and doing the new firefighter a favor by conducting the orientation. The new firefighter   
 
  • Will feel more welcome in the company and can concentrate on learning the job without the added chore of learning the new situation.
  • Establishes a positive communications link with the company officer.
  • Has a clear understanding of the objectives, expectations, and desired behaviors. This is especially important for items not included in the probationary or new firefighter training program (e.g., station policies).
 
                 
1     William H. Holley, Kenneth M. Jennings. Personnel/Human Resource Management. Hinsdale, Illinois: The Dryden Press, 1987, 285.
 
 
 
Ron Hiraki began his career as a firefighter in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, working in a variety of operational and administrative positions leading to his final assignment as Assistant Chief of Employee Development. Completing his career as an assistant chief for a small combination fire department, Hiraki has nearly 30 years of fire service experience in urban and suburban settings. He holds a Master of Science degree in human resources development and is a consultant to a number of public safety agencies for their selection and performance evaluation programs.
 

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