By Anthony Rowett Jr.
The “senior man” is one of the most influential roles in the fire service. In different departments, the title senior man can mean different things. In some it refers to the firefighter with the most experience; in others, it is simply a senior member regardless of rank. In any case, there are characteristics of “the senior man” that remain the same. This member possesses a great amount of knowledge and experience, but it’s attitude of a true senior man is what differentiates these individuals from the rest. These individuals always put the company, the department, and the fire service first. It is never about personal gain but instead about the betterment of the whole.
The senior man is the firefighter who newer firefighters will look to for guidance. These individuals must possess the knowledge and experience to instruct newer firefighters on how to perform their job duties. A true senior man will not simply teach newer firefighters how to perform a task, but also why that task is performed and the effect it has on the overall fireground operation. Without this knowledge and experience, a senior man would be unable to instruct in job duties as well as ensure that new members understand the reasons behind those duties.
But it is attitude that truly defines these individuals, namely the idea that the company, the department, and the fire service in general is more important than the individual firefighter. The senior man understands that his role is to pass along his knowledge and experience. As the fire frequency decreases, the experiences of senior firefighters must be passed down to new members lest past mistakes be repeated on a generational scale.
A true senior man will also allow his actions to speak rather than his words. He leads by example and is the model for newer firefighters to follow. Although others may delegate less-enjoyable tasks to new recruits, a senior man will perform them alongside the rookies—again, leading by example. Thus the newer firefighter gains respect for the senior man as well as the task itself. This leadership by example stresses the importance of performing even the smallest, seemingly-unimportant tasks to the highest level. Newer firefighters will many times feel that they work with a senior man, not for him. A senior man understands that attitude is everything in the fire service. It is a choice for a firefighter to simply meet the minimum requirements or to exceed expectations. A senior man will not only demonstrate the proper path but will also motivate others to strive for excellence. Attitude is contagious, and leading by example will prompt new recruits to emulate the firefighter who undertakes these tasks. Newer firefighters may even strive to perform to a level that will impress the senior man or make him proud while at the same time striving to ensure their performance never disappoints.
When the title “senior man” is mentioned, most firefighters can immediately identify those influential members who impacted their careers. Often these impacts last for an entire career, long after the mentor and recruit no longer work together. The senior man understands that every aspect of the fire service is new to a new firefighter and works to ensure the recruit is on a path that will lead to success for the remainder of his or her career. A senior man also understands the scale of his impact on recruits and that his example will be followed for years to come.
I remember my first tour after graduating from rookie school. The driver of the engine company I was assigned to took me outside and we went over all of the tools and pieces of equipment on the apparatus: what they were, where they were located on the apparatus, and how to use them. He then had me check all his vital signs. At first, this seemed like a way of making sure I retained the information that I was taught during rookie school, but afterward he explained to me that, as a member of the company, I now represented the entire company. When I worked with other companies, whether on overtime or when detailed, my actions would reflect directly on the other members of the company. If I performed well, it would reflect well on the company, underscoring that they were performing their duties and teaching me the job. On the other hand, it also meant that if I did not perform well it reflected poorly on them all. He explained to me that the purpose of rookie school was simply to teach me the basics; now it was the responsibility of the members of the company to teach me to be a firefighter. This had a lasting impression on me. As an officer, I now have this same discussion with new firefighters.
A senior man will make an impression that lasts an entire career. Not only do you remember the actions of the senior man, but you also continue to look to him for guidance even when you no longer are assigned to the same company. In true senior-man fashion, this person will continue to provide guidance even though you are no longer assigned to the same company, because the goal is the betterment of the department and the fire service as a whole. A true senior man will feel a sense of responsibility for the newer firefighters whom they trained. The senior man will feel a sense of pride when you succeed and a sense of defeat when you experience a failure. This level of commitment sets him apart from the average firefighter.
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One of the biggest issues facing the fire service is the mentality that rank identifies knowledge. Although rank does indicate knowledge, it does not indicate the fact that those who have chosen not to promote through the ranks do not possess knowledge. Some of the greatest assets to the fire service are the senior firefighters who have chosen not to promote through the ranks, not because of lack of ability to do so but instead because they simply choose to remain at the rank of firefighter. The knowledge and experience of these firefighters should never be overlooked. In fact, these are some of the most influential members of the fire service. For a new firefighter, it is intimidating to approach the company officer, but the senior firefighter is much less intimidating. The company officer will also many times rely on the senior firefighter to address some of the new firefighter’s training while the company officer attends to other duties. A good senior man will also take a great amount of pride in the success of the rookie as well as work to ensure that his performance always meets or exceeds the expectations of the company officer.
Another issue facing the fire service is the change in attitude of some senior men. There is a new thought process that knowledge is power, and therefore if a senior man shares all of his knowledge with new members, they might be out-performed on the job. This thought process goes against all that the title of senior man stands for, namely puts the group above himself. A true senior man wants to see others succeed. I have been fortunate enough to work with multiple firefighters who were true senior men. They never exhibited this mentality, instead they always had the mentality that they were going to teach me everything that they knew. They sought to pass along all of their knowledge to me and to allow me to learn from their experiences. They did not concern themselves with what type of success that knowledge might lead to for me. It was always about ensuring that I learned as much from them as possible. That ensured that the company would perform to the best of its abilities, and that was always their primary mission.
If you have not had the benefit of working with a true senior man, seek one out. The senior man is not a rarity in the fire service. There are many members of the fire service who believe that this is a lifestyle rather than a career. There are many members of the fire service who understand that it is their responsibility to teach new members how to be firefighters. They understand that to do this they must pass along as much of their knowledge and experience as possible. There are senior men who care more about the success of their company, department, and the fire service than about individual success. There are also senior men at the national level. Firefighters can now attend training conferences where they can learn from the knowledge and experiences of some of the biggest names in the fire service. At some of these conferences, the biggest names in the fire service nationally will volunteer their time to instruct firefighters from around the country at a minimal cost and even sometimes at no cost to the firefighter. After the class, some of the instructors will even be willing to provide the students with copies of the class presentation. These instructors care about one thing only, and that is improving the fire service overall. They are the definition of what a senior man is.
These firefighters constantly work to improve the fire service, and new firefighters should look to them for guidance and seek to emulate. The senior man will many times dictate the level of success that a company will achieve, as the senior man is often one of the most dedicated members of the company and will look to ensure the success of all of the members as well as the company as a whole.
Anthony Rowett Jr. is a captain with the Mobile (AL) Fire Rescue Department. Previously, he was a firefighter with the Ogdensburg (NJ) Fire Department. He has an associate degree in fire science technology from County College of Morris (NJ), a bachelor’s degree in fire science, and a master’s degree in emergency services management from Columbia Southern University. To comment on this column, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.