I have been in the fire service for 25 years, have instructed in fire programs since 1996, and now teach for the Ohio State Fire Academy and the Knox County Career Center.
Wow, I am that guy! Which guy? The “old guy.” As I was standing in the bathroom at the station, washing my hands, I looked up into the mirror, and there he was. The old guy I looked to when I was a rookie. When did he come back to the firehouse? Which “old guy” was that? Was he the one you could turn to and ask questions? Was he the one who encouraged you to try new things? Or, was he the one who sat on the recliner, not willing to give you the time of day, let alone help clean up after the last meal? Only the rookies below me can honestly answer that question.
When do you start becoming the “old guy”? The day you get hired. That first day can make or break a career. Let’s face it. Starting a career in your new profession at a new station with new people, possibly in an area with which you are not familiar, can be stressful. How you handle that stress defines how you will handle the stressors out on runs and throughout your career. Will you get better at handling stress? Sure. However, if you get labeled a “hothead” in your first year, it will be hard to shake that title.
As you progress through your career, you will have ups and downs. Your goal should be to have more ups than downs. Look for opportunities to bring yourself up, whether it is specing a truck or learning the newest technique or tool. Getting excited about something can bring others up also.
Being a good mentor doesn’t mean you have the new firefighters do everything, unless you are right there doing it with them. This includes house duties and cooking, especially in the first couple of months. You want them to focus on learning the trade, not on how to clean the rigs or station. There is some value in assigning them to certain duties-sinks and stinks, for example-just not all of them. You have to lead them to do the right thing. This is also not the time to toot your horn and say, “Look at what I do/did.” Instead, teach them what you do. Teach them all you know. Start with the basics. Go over the rules and regulations, standard operating procedures (SOPs), contracts, and any other governing documents. They need to know what their responsibilities to the employer are. After that, start with the trucks. Take one tool at a time, discussing tactics for that tool. As you progress, take the tools out and use them.
Depending on the experience level of the new firefighter, you may have to start by explaining what the tool does and how it works. Today’s young people want to know the why along with the how. If they come to you with a little experience, give them the opportunity to show what they know. They may teach you something. Let them fail (unless safety is involved). Failure will reinforce the methods that do work. If you know a “better” method or if the method does not meet department SOPs, discuss it with them. They may be familiar with “your” method. If not, show them. Then give them the opportunity to perform the task under your supervision. It may take multiple attempts. Be patient. Understand that everyone learns at different speeds.
Tradition brings pride and respect for the job. Why do we have traditions, and what do they mean? We should be teaching the rookies our traditions. We need to explain where they come from and their significance. Some traditions have gone by the wayside, but they are still important for the rookies to know. It is our history. It is what has formed us as a profession.
Ultimately, everything we have talked about comes down to one point-doing the right thing, not because it makes you look good, but because it is the right thing to do. The rookie will learn from the “seasoned” firefighter who strives to do things the correct way all of the time.
These were the things I saw when I was the rookie. I didn’t really think about any of this during my career. They were not things I strived for. I did my job. I learned my profession. I tried to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do. Only the rookies on the crews will truly be able tell me if I am a good mentor. It is never too early or too late to start being a good mentor. Reflect on your career to date, focus on the future, and set the example. Create your legacy. Today’s rookies will be your legacy and a reflection of what you have taught them.
Whitehall (OH) Division of Fire
Leaders: affective or effective?
Often, we try to wrap our minds around what exactly produces a quality leader. We think about this because we want to better our shift or our department or maybe prepare for a promotional test. Leadership has been around since the beginning of time. These leaders were either affective or effective, sometimes both.
An affective leader gives the appearance of a leader or artificially assumes the leadership role. The effective leader produces results. It’s obvious that the fire service wants genuine leaders who are solid, strong, and trustworthy-people who inspire accomplishment. We need leaders who are functional and have good intentions backed by purposeful planning.
A role model need not be an officer; it could be a line firefighter. Sometimes, these firefighters excel as leaders because they don’t lead from an assumed role but from their love and passion for the job. They’re leading because they want to see new people and their department improve-even more important is that they want to improve themselves.
We many times are under the impression that one has to be in the fire service for 30-plus years to be a leader. This is not so. An effective leader does not stand in front of people and yell or insist that it is his way or the highway. An effective leader is open to using outside resources or enlisting the help of a subordinate who may be better versed in a specific subject.
Effective leaders leave an impression of respect, knowledge, and understanding. We eventually have to retire from this business. We may be the leaders today, but we’re training the leaders of tomorrow. What are you going to do? How are you going to lead? Are you ready for the challenge?
Fountain Inn (SC) Fire Department
A wealth of knowledge
In the July issue, I found something of interest to borrow or share in every article. Keep up the good work.
John M. Buckman III
Fire Training Chief
Office of the Indiana State Fire Marshal
Rules appropriate for all
Thanks to author Chris Gustafson for an excellent adaptation of the 11 General Orders from the U.S. Marine Corps (“General Orders for the Company Officer,” July 2014). Not only are they applicable to the fire service, but they apply to any civilian situation as well. Many of the challenges one encounters in one’s personal and professional life can be readily mitigated by adhering to the principles set forth in this article. We would all do well for ourselves, our employers, and our communities to take up the challenge to model each of these as our personal “General Orders” and rules of conduct. Thank you for another fine article and a great publication.
Volunteer Firefighter (Ret.)
Sweetwater (TN) Fire Department
Fire Engineering Archives