BY STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI
Getting along with your coworkers, supervisors, and subordinates at the fire station should be a simple task (or so many people may think). It would be nice if we could say that everyone is born with common sense and can put it into action during our daily lives and interactions with other people and that everyone gets along with each other at every fire station in every fire department. But, we who are firefighters know that is not the case. Some departments may have better morale than others, and some may be better at personnel interrelationships than others.
I have seen fire stations across the nation where everyone hangs out together throughout the entire day and into the evening, and I have seen stations where 10 or more firefighters are on duty but no one can be found during the day (they are all hiding out doing their own thing).
Firefighters who do not develop the skills for building good personal relationships during their probationary period may find themselves having to play “catch-up” and engage in damage control as their career progresses. It is imperative that a probationary firefighter start off on the right foot. The reputation firefighters develop during their probationary period (actually in the first few months) might follow them for their entire career.
BUILDING AND MAINTAINING SUCCESSFUL RELATIONSHIPS
I do not know where the following rules originated or who developed them; therefore, I cannot properly credit the source. I found this list of “rules” taped on one of our fire station refrigerators. If you think about it, following these rules could enhance personal relationships in the fire station and in other areas outside the station.
1. If you open it, close it! Some time ago, while working an overtime shift at another station, the engineer I was working with grabbed a tool out of the engineer’s compartment on the engine. He apparently took out the tool but did not shut the compartment door. We use roll-up doors on our apparatus, so it wasn’t easily noticed. We also have “compartment open” lights and buzzers on our apparatus, to notify us that a compartment is open after the service brake is released and we are moving. As Murphy’s Law would have it, we were dispatched to an EMS call shortly after the engineer removed the item. As we were putting the EMS gear back onto the engine, I happened to notice the open compartment. I pointed it out to the engineer. He told me he had taken something out and had forgotten to close it. We looked inside and did not see anything obvious missing. Because of that incident, however, we had to retrace our steps back to the fire station and carefully look in the street for any equipment that may have fallen out of the compartment. When we got back to the fire station, I had the engineer do a complete inventory of that compartment. Nothing was missing. We were lucky.
In that station’s first-due area, the value of the homes range from $1 million to $10 million. The residents drive Ferrari, Mercedes Benz, Porsche, Rolls Royce, or BMW vehicles. If a tool had fallen off our apparatus and hit one of those cars, it would have been embarrassing, and most probably costly, for the department. Such an incident is unacceptable and preventable.
Key learning point: Good luck reinforces bad habits. Take the time to shut the door of a compartment (or cabinet or appliance, and so on) after you open it.
2. If you turn it on, turn it off. To help reduce operation costs, turn off the light (or any other electrical appliance at the fire station) you turn on when you leave the room (of course, if no one else is in the room).
Key learning point: Most fire departments have to pay their electric bills out of their operating budget. Reducing costs in this area can save money that might be used for other budget items such as salaries, additional staffing, new apparatus, new turnouts, and new equipment.
3. If you unlock it, lock it. If you leave the station to go out to your vehicle in the station parking lot and leave the station door open or do not lock it, you leave the fire station and the personal belongings of its members vulnerable to theft and vandalism.
A few years ago, someone left the apparatus doors open to let cool air come in through the station (while the apparatus and crews were in quarters-a practice in many fire departments). Someone walked in and took a couple of portable radios, valued at about $3,000, from the apparatus.
Key learning point: The doors can be left open if someone is going to be watching over things. In the incident above, the crews had to write incident reports telling the chief what happened and how it could be prevented in the future. Three thousand dollars can provide new (or replacement) personal protective equipment for a firefighter or two. Unfortunately, that $3,000 needed to replace the stolen radios had to be taken out of money that could have been spent more productively.
4. If you break it, repair it (and report it to your supervisor ASAP). It is almost inevitable that something will break or get damaged over the course of your career in the fire department. Some of this damage/replacement cost falls under “the cost of doing business”; however, in many cases, the damage could have been prevented. Regardless, if you break something or discover it broken, report it to your supervisor as soon as possible so that the item can be repaired or replaced.
Key learning point: Do not try to “cover up the damage.” Covering up the damage or acting as though it never happened and waiting for B-shift to find it during its morning checkout is not the right way to handle the situation. Such an approach could present more problems than being honest from the beginning-advising your supervisor that you made a mistake, expressing remorse, and offering a plan for preventing it from happening again. Be responsible and accountable for your actions, and attempt to solve the problem. Don’t forget to keep your supervisors in the loop so that they do not get blindsided in the future.
5. If you can’t fix it, call in someone who can. The statement “Firefighters are the jack of all trades and master of none” may be considered humorous or offensive, depending on how it is interpreted. The point is that we cannot be experts in everything. That is why we work as a team. Using all of our talents in a synergistic fashion can get the job done in the most efficient way (most of the time).
Key learning point: Know when to say when. Think of yourself as the incident commander at a structure fire. Your crews are spraying water on the fire, but it doesn’t appear to be enough water. Plan A is not working; you must find a plan B. That plan B might be deploying larger-diameter hoselines, additional hoselines, master streams, and so on. You have to call in more resources to assist you in properly completing the job.
6. If you borrow it, return it. Nothing is more annoying than looking for a tool or piece of equipment or other item used around the station and not being able to find it because someone did not put it back in its right place.
Key learning point: Not putting an item back after you have finished with it can cause a job to be delayed or incomplete-even worse, someone’s life may be jeopardized because that item was critical to mitigating an emergency scene.
7. If you use it, take care of it. If I had a dollar for every tool I encountered that had been taken off an apparatus for use during a call and then left improperly cleaned, I would be rich. Many times, we get those after-midnight calls at which we use a tool or multiple tools that are not fully placed back in service in proper condition (equal to or better than the original condition).
When you’ve been up all night fighting a fire and return to the fire station at 4 a.m., you’re usually very tired. It is very easy to say, “I’ll get it tomorrow morning before I go off duty” or “I’m working tomorrow also, so I’ll just clean it then.” Many of us probably have been guilty of doing this or at least thinking about doing it. Do the right thing: Clean that tool, piece of equipment, or fire apparatus as soon as you can. Don’t wait or put it off, because there is a good chance you will forget about it. Worse, it may have to be used at another call and will not work properly.
Key learning point: If nothing else, here is a good reason for completely checking out your equipment and apparatus every morning and doing an especially thorough checkout if the previous crew had a rough night of running calls: As soon as you start your shift, everything becomes your responsibility. Even if the previous crew forgot to do something, it is still your hide if something goes wrong!
8. If you make a mess, clean it up. When you work in a fire station, you are responsible for your actions (and “nonactions”). The old phrase “Your mother doesn’t work here” applies perfectly to this situation. Why should someone else be stuck cleaning up your mess? Check the fire station before you go off shift for any dirty dishes, leftover paperwork, and so on.
Key learning point: I work on “C” shift and have enough work to do during the day without having to pick up after “A” or “B” shift. The shift you work on has enough work of its own without having to worry about doing the work of other shifts.
9. If you move it, put it back. This goes along with number 6 above. There is a reason for keeping many tools and pieces of equipment in a certain location on the apparatus. Don’t arbitrarily move things because you don’t like it that way. Discuss the moves with the other shifts and the officer in charge of apparatus and equipment first.
Key learning point: Not putting something back in its proper location can cause some delay in getting the job done, whatever the job may be. Let’s just hope it is not a life-or-death situation or one involving you or a family member who may be in harm’s way.
10. If it belongs to someone else, get permission to use it. This rule should be self-explanatory.
Key learning point: If you don’t like someone’s taking your belongings without your permission, why would someone else like your doing it?
11. If you don’t know how to operate it, leave it alone. Anytime I have new firefighters working with me for the first time, I stress that I expect them to check out the assigned apparatus and equipment thoroughly so that they know where everything is. The last thing I want them to do while on a call is to have to open up more than one compartment to find something. I think it is embarrassing to see firefighters looking for a certain piece of equipment opening up multiple compartments on the rig trying to find that one item. They should take the time to open up every compartment at the beginning of the shift to familiarize themselves with the setup.
Let’s go back to having the new firefighters know the assigned apparatus for the shift inside and out. I also tell them that if they see a tool or a piece of equipment they have never seen before (which should not happen, but it does), they should ask me or another firefighter as soon as possible what it is used for and how to use it. I would rather take the time to show someone how to use something in a nonemergency situation than on the critical emergency scene when many people are watching and critiquing how well (or not so well) we are doing our job.
I remember being at a vehicle accident where extrication was required when I was a student firefighter in a larger fire department in California. The local police were pursuing a van full of youths. The van rolled over onto its roof, trapping the youths. When the fire department units arrived, we were met by a couple of hundred loud and obnoxious audience members standing around the perimeter of the accident. It was a long and challenging extrication because the van’s location provided limited access.
Although the firefighters appeared (in my opinion) to be doing their jobs to the best of their ability based on the situation presented to them, I remember hearing one very loud individual shouting over the noise of the power tools, “What’s taking you guys so long? This isn’t how they do it on Rescue 911!” Although it was not funny at the time (it was actually quite frustrating-didn’t they know we were doing the best we could, given the situation?), I look back at that day and laugh. I also cannot blame that person because when someone is having an emergency, it seems as though it is taking forever to accomplish the necessary tasks. We cannot forget that the public is always watching us with their subjective eyes, video cameras, and cellular phone cameras.
Key learning point: There is nothing wrong with not knowing how to use something. Not everything can be taught at the recruit academy. What is unacceptable is not thoroughly checking out your equipment and apparatus at the start of the shift,
12. If it doesn’t concern you, don’t mess with it. Unless something directly involves you, don’t get involved!
Key learning point: Getting yourself involved might cause you more stress and heartache than you want. Know when to say when, and be careful about getting involved in things that don’t concern you.
Following these 12 tips can help probationary firefighters increase their chances of getting along with others at the fire station and serve as reminders to the veterans.
STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI is a 12-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with the Santa Clara County (CA) Fire Department. He is also the fire technology coordinator at Chabot College in Hayward, California, where he has been instructing in fire technology and EMS for 10 years. He is on the board of directors for the Northern California Training Officers Association, currently serving as treasurer. He is a state-certified chief officer, fire officer, master instructor, and hazardous materials technician, as well as a state-licensed paramedic. He has an associate’s degree in fire technology, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and a master’s degree in emergency services administration.