Editor’s note: Here is “The Best of Brennan,” a column of Tom Brennan’s that appeared in the October 1988 issue and that still rings true today.

I’ve often been asked to speak at recruit graduations. Just what do you say as a firefighter at the end of a career to those at the very beginning of theirs? After the formalities, rules, and procedures generic to that department were gone over and printed matter distributed, what would I have liked said to me if I were in their shoes?

One of the common threads within the fire service membership is that almost all answer (when asked), “I love this job.” And I think that an analysis of what brings you to that statement is of tremendous value to the new recruits who are just beginning to shape how they think during their careers. I would try to say:

You are at the greatest moment in your career. You are stepping off to be one of America’s defenders of life itself. You’re now, truly, your brothers’ keeper. You are part of the fabric of America and, in my estimation, its heart and soul. This thought is as awesome as it is rewarding.

These months of basic or probationary training have seemed like an eternity. I know-I vividly recall my three months in probie school and the following year of probation. Even at this time, I can remember each day, each hour. Time went so slowly then. I only wish that my next 25 years of fighting fires went as slowly. Believe me, it goes fast-too fast.

A word of caution. You will arrive at many plateaus in your career from here on. And this moment is most assuredly one of them. You have successfully completed training, and you think it’s over! Nothing could be further from the truth. No firefighter is worth anything to himself, his department, or his community the moment he believes that he knows enough or knows it all. Training is and must be an ongoing concept-from day one (now) until day last. That idea should be accepted by the probationary firefighter and nodded to in agreement by the chief.

You must continue to grow. You will all grow at different rates and in different directions, but grow you must. Your safety and the survival of those you protect, love, and work with depends almost totally on it.

Avoid those who “know it all.” You will all meet those people sooner or later. They’re in every department, in every state. They are the ones who have stopped growing long ago. They have become self-centered and stagnant. They will be of no value to you and probably a detriment to their department.

Capitalize on every experience. Critique, listen, learn, attend, train, decide, and, most assuredly in the future-command!

Look for reasons for what you do, in what you perform. The watchwords of what, how, when, why, where, and who should constantly pop up in your mind. If what you will learn is reasoned out, then it becomes knowledge. You will be able to build on knowledge-not on memory.

We are the only profession that operates in an uncontrolled environment. Some moments are more stressful than others. Your ability to keep your wits about you while all others are losing theirs is a sign of a true professional. That ability is necessary to be successful and, in reality, to survive. At a time like this, if you have only memory to rely on, it’ll fail you. You will also not be able to defend what you believe, evaluate what you hear as new to you, or recall vital information when the “fan” is being hit.

Whittle down the surprises. Yes, we are in a risky business, but, supported by training, knowledge, and understanding, we will not be surprised by situations as often. We take calculated risks based on analyses: We are professionals!

You are now a member of the world’s greatest profession. You will ascend to personal highs that only another firefighter will understand. You will also be brought to tears that only you will understand. Our job is truly unique in its humor as well as in its sorrow. I only pray that you will always be able to function between those two extreme feelings so that one never overshadows the other.

It’s now up to you to make people better off because you came this way, because you responded, because you showed up. You are your brothers’ keeper-keep them safe.

Enjoy OUR job, brothers and sisters. God bless you. You are now part of one big family, and if there is ever anything any one of us can do for you, don’t ever hesitate to ask.

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