BY MICHAEL G. BROWN
The fire service offers us many avenues to express our professional energies. Few are as rewarding as having the opportunity to place your spin on the “greenest” recruits coming into your department. Technological advances in the 2000s are changing the shape of the workforce. Thousands of new job opportunities are attracting the best and the brightest candidates, potentially away from the fire service. We must work with renewed enthusiasm to attract, motivate, and maintain our share of the highest quality people. Let’s examine some successful and some not-so-successful strategies that have been used to make impressions on fire service recruits. What works or usually does not work when starting off green recruits?
MOTIVATORS FOR TEACHER AND STUDENTS
Three factors that are often left a little gray (ambiguous) must be made perfectly clear to everyone concerned. In order of priority, they are
- Why are you in a position to be teaching the recruit?
- What is your motivation for being in a position to teach valuable recruits?
- What has motivated the student to want to become a firefighter?
If you are a really smart fire instructor, you will make the time to clarify the answers to these questions-making crystal clear your motivational objectives and those of your recruits.
The assumptions for the purposes of this discussion are that you have the desire to teach recruit firefighters and that some type of formal recruit school is taking place to orient them to the fire service. If you have been forced into the position for some reason or are otherwise not committed to teaching recruits, that is material for an entirely different conversation. If you are so advanced and mature that communicating with bright yellow NomexT zygotes is beneath you, that adds still another topic of endless debate. If, however, you actually look forward to sharing your love of this great business with the recruit, if you get a little fuzzy in the belly at the proposition of spinning little neo-truckees and pre-teething hose humpers into little visions of yourself, then you are probably there for most of the right reasons.
You will find it exceedingly hard to bring about professional fire service behavior if no formal process is in place to indoctrinate the newest firefighters. Your department owes it to the people who are willing to begin service with your fire department to make the time and accept the expense of formalizing the initial education and orientation process.
Examine, and then share openly with the recruits, the reasons you became a firefighter. Our business is truly one of the few professions that people fall in love with for their whole lives. That unique and seamless connection between childhood and adulthood somehow keeps us all younger. There is no person in any occupation in the world who wouldn’t enjoy running down the road in a big, fast, loud red truck, pulling cars over left and right in the spirit of saving lives and property, and battling the red devil to boot.
Or, for you, the reason you became a firefighter may be that you are addicted to that drug-whatever it is, adrenaline or happy juice-from whatever gland it is that squeezes itself empty when you are pushing that envelope in a really hot working fire, fighting it out with Lucifer himself.
Or is it that fighting fire is the most basic of instincts, even more basic than recreating one’s self or more prostrate than love itself? It is all about good and evil, water and fire, life and death, heaven and hell. Use these concepts to arouse in the recruits a feeling that is special for them, a feeling they have not experienced in any other school they have attended. People always learn better when they are impassioned with the subject.
Green recruits want something that you have. They may not be sure what it is, but they can sense it. If you are strong enough and care enough to share bits of it with them, your department will bear the fruits of your labor. What brings them to you is the next priority.
Get them to talk about the reasons they are beginning a life in the fire service. Chances are they are similar to the ones that brought you here. Often, it is because family or friends are in the fire service. Or they may be looking for a job, a way of paying the bills, or the perceived excitement. Maybe they just want to be a part of the community. Almost everyone likes to be a part of an organization, a team, or a group of like individuals with similar goals.
The organization is the apparatus you can use to test-drive the recruit’s real reasons for being there. One of the most cost-effective ways to motivate recruits is to make it clear that the school is a screening process for the department. Instructors who have to teach recruits who have already been securely hired (career with absent or weak probation policies) or given full membership (volunteer) are sometimes left with less than energetic performers. Let it be known that superior professional behavior is critical to staying with the organization and that students who underperform and display a lack of discipline will likely be separated and will have to return to the life of normal citizens. Organizations that keep a strong probationary status over recruits, and have the reputation of using it as a valuable screening tool, have much more motivated people.
Orientation to the fire service and the multifaceted organization and operations classes bring home the reality of a close-knit unit with a common mission. There is something remarkably powerful about the uniform. The “uni-form” (uni-one, form-alike) is a powerful enough concept to unite without words. The change in people is dramatic when you get them out of civilian clothes and into a common form of dress. It does not have to be expensive or dramatic; even T-shirts that are common to the department and in some way common to the recruits can have a huge and unifying effect on bringing together new firefighters. The uniform is also the first official piece of tradition greeting green recruits. Make every effort to involve them in our proud traditional values.
THE TEAM CONCEPT
Developing the team concept from the first meeting is incredibly important. During that first meeting, explain the importance of teamwork and the methods that will be used to guarantee team-oriented behavior. Immediately prepare the group for teams of between four and eight people. This number includes the minimum and maximum number of people who will fulfill most fireground operations. A four-person team exemplifies an engine or ladder company. If the school is large enough to have eight-person teams, each team will represent an engine and a ladder company.
Assign squad leaders before you select team members. This will give you an opportunity to stack the deck in favor of stronger squad leaders. Your squads will benefit much faster if they have strong and willing leaders. Weak leaders will probably have to be replaced anyway; picking strong ones in the beginning will save the student the embarrassment of the “demotion.” Your initial class interview will give you some indication of which students have natural or more formal (military style) leadership experience. If you are completely unfamiliar with the green recruits’ leadership potential, consider making the squad leader assignments based on age. The age-only selection process removes students’ perceived feelings of inadequacy for leadership by resigning to the nonvariability of age. Also, experience has shown that older students typically, but not always, have more lifetime leadership experiences than their younger counterparts. Make an issue of the importance of the squad leader assignment, and acquire a verbal commitment from each chosen leader that he will accept the added responsibility willingly. Also consider “badging” the squad leaders with a special collar device or shirt pin.
In larger groups (15 students or more), it is practicable to make your squad personnel assignments randomly. For example, if you are making four squads, simply count off the students from the right side to the left side of the room: 1,2,3,4 and 1,2,3,4, and so on.
Have the team members immediately report to the preappointed squad leaders and physically stand with their new squad. Allow them some time to become acquainted. Inform the squad leader that he shall introduce the rest of the squad to the school, reporting their names and a little bit about their background after a brief orientation. Allow 10 or 15 minutes for the squad orientation. Exactly at the expiration of the specified time, direct the squad leader to introduce the squad to the rest of the school. Many new squad leaders may be surprised that you require quality and speed in following directives so early in the school. They may not be used to listening to orders for detail and clarity. This is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that you will be demanding quality work for the duration of the school and that speed is important as well. Some of the leaders will inevitably do an excellent job of the introductions. The whole school will sense a job well done as evidenced by your supporting comments.
All of your training evolutions should reflect team or “squad” movements and consolidated actions. Assign the squads seating assignments. Consider assigning maintenance responsibilities by giving them a training pumper or a classroom to keep up-through which they can demonstrate their squad pride-for the duration of the school. Consider issuing each squad an item (called an “icon”) that they must have in their possession at all times. Use crummy old and rusted truck components or firefighting tools that are in the worst condition-impellers, door openers, play pipes, bells, sirens, ladder sections, or anything else that is mindful of the fire service, nasty, and unwieldy. Make sure the object is not sharp or too heavy to be hustled around by a single recruit. The icons must be cleaned and made perfect for inspection within the first couple of class periods; be sure to give the recruits adequate time to get them appropriately squared away for inspection. Unless the order “relax your icons” is given, they must never be out of contact with the squad. The icons should be always available for inspection at a moment’s notice. Inform the squads that their icons (if made completely presentable and mountable) will be mounted and maintained at the fire academy or in the fire station after school is completed. This gives them an early sense of belonging and longevity they will have earned. The icon is an incredibly easy focus tool for demonstrating squad pride throughout the school. As a graduation present, let the senior recruits “prepare” the next generation of icons for the incoming green recruits. It is amazing to see the ingenuity senior recruits possess when it comes to producing the devices through which they can pass on their legacy to the recruits who will be junior to them.
TIME A GREAT TOOL
Time is one of the finest (and cheapest) tools to help train firefighters. Any Marine will tell you: “If you’re late, you’re AWOL (absent without leave); if you’re on time, you’re late; and if you’re early, you’re on time.” Make it clear from the beginning that the school is time-oriented. Emphasize this early by shutting the door at exactly the time appointed for the school to begin. For example, if the orientation class begins at 1900 hours, shut the door at 1859:59 hours. Inevitably, someone will be late for school and have to enter through a locked door. Make gentle examples of these people, and use this time to have everyone synchronize their watches to the classroom clock or your watch. They will get the point quickly and start being early for class.
Time simple evolutions from the very first day, and use time to enforce your directives at every opportunity. Time each rest break. Record the time it takes to don and doff turnout gear and SCBA. Time physical training evolutions, written exams, and any other activity the students are expected to perform. Teach them how to perform more efficiently and quickly as the school progresses. Bring them to the point of making small mistakes in the name of speed and then back just a bit to slower than fast, safer than quick. Teach them to find their efficiency groove-where they work fast and safe, where they do not make mistakes, where they can appreciate the value of speed but also the efficiency of calculated movement. All of this emphasis on time makes the green recruit quickly aware of the multitude of time factors that are a part of the job of being a firefighter, but never at the expense of safety and efficiency. We fight fire at a jog, never a sprint. We drive to a call swiftly, but we never run a red light. We work a cardiac arrest rapidly, but never so fast that we further injure the patient or ourselves.
PREPARING RECRUITS TO FOLLOW ORDERS
Fire service organization and operation are paramilitary. You will see a wide array of green recruits introduced to your rookie school. Frankly, we are dealing with Generation Xers, most of whom have never had to take an order from anyone in their lives. Make it clear to the recruits from the first day of the school exactly what you expect of them when you issue directives. In your organization and operation lecture, stress the nature of directives on the fire scene, autocratic fireground command orders vs. nonemergency-type directives. Make sure they understand your departmental policies on discipline and order and the consequences of failing to follow orders. When treated with respect, most recruits will quickly fall into the routine of taking orders. In fact, most people enjoy being led by competent leaders.
ENFORCING TEACHING OBJECTIVES
The school’s instructors should be selected carefully. Instructors placed in the school against their wishes and abilities can ruin the students’ initial impressions of the fire service. Instructors, however, can also create an impression that is most supportive of the program. Experienced firefighters have real-time experience to which recruits must be exposed.
When performing practical skill modular rotations, make sure the instructors follow the curriculum and don’t sneak in any nasty little habits they may have picked up along the way. Ensure that the instructors stick with the tight timelines you have established for the rotations. Sometimes instructors finish early on, say, a 90-minute rotation and fiddle away time telling stories or allowing the students idle time. Make sure every minute is occupied. Repetition is one of the best adult education strategies. Instructors should have the students repeat the module’s actions, if necessary, to keep everyone active until it is time for the next rotation.
Physical training (PT) should be fire service-related and team concept-oriented. Always have the recruits perform PT as a team. Encourage the more physically fit to help their teammates through the rigors of PT. Sometimes this gives the less academically inclined students a chance to shine in their squads. Doing PT in full turnout gear is a great way to get students used to wearing their personal protective gear as a matter of habit. Recruits should be given goals that are recorded and checked as milestones throughout the school. It is reasonable to expect and require the recruit to perform 50 sit-ups and 50 push-ups in complete turnouts (minus SCBA) by the end of the school. If they made it past even a moderately hard physical screening process, they should be able to successfully perform these two tests after a 12- to 16-week recruit school. Additional PT activities should include walking and climbing in full turnouts. After they receive their SCBA training, add that to the exercise. The time element is relative to the amount of air in their tanks. Have all the students equalize their tanks to the same level. Since tanks are almost never exactly full, have them squeeze out air to some established level-for 4,500-psi bottles, 4,000 psi is a good; for 2,216-psi bottles, 2,000 is good. This places everyone on a level playing field. Have them fast-walk in team order, single file, a course that involves many of the aspects of firefighting-for example, walk up three flights of stairs, exit through a window, crawl through a pipe, and repeat the course. Everybody stays in line, no passing; this helps the slower people stay motivated and allows them to help each other through the obstacles. About 20 minutes is good for this drill. Some people will aerobically drain their tanks earlier; have them disconnect their regulators on the fly and continue fast walking. This discourages some recruits from bleeding down their air faster than necessary, thinking it will end their evolution early. At the end, have them line back up in their squad lines, and record any remaining air pressure in the tanks. Record this, and track progress as the school proceeds. The recruits will be surprised at their improvement and, in the process, will have learned how to breathe conservatively under physical stress and how to move in their gear and work as a team.
PREPARING THE FAMILY
The recruit’s family is a critical motivational factor that often is overlooked. Although each recruit has a different family background and needs, one of the school’s priorities should be to prepare family members for the fire service as well. One of the best ways to keep the recruit motivated and focused is to remove as much of the stress that can be induced by a family that suddenly is receiving a lot less of the recruit’s attention. The family will be making considerable sacrifices for the duration of the school. Time spent at the school and on homework and research projects will be significant and can stress even solid family structures. Additionally, learning to live with the inherent dangers of the job can be traumatic for some families. All of these issues should be faced aggressively. Discuss the family factors in detail during the orientation lecture. Issue an open invitation to the family to visit the school. Encourage photo and video opportunities whenever practical evolutions are being held, and consider hosting a family day or two during the school to encourage the family’s involvement.
We have been assigned tremendous responsibilities in attracting and promoting the enthusiasm of our valuable recruits. The future of the fire service depends on how we manage these precious resources and how much value we place on turning them from green recruits into seasoned firefighters.
MICHAEL G. BROWN is a fire captain with the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department, currently assigned to Engine and Ladder 16. He is a Pro-Board-certified Fire Service Instructor IV and is a partner in Spec. Rescue International, a fire and rescue training and consultation company.