Starting Over-Again

By TIMOTHY PILLSWORTH

Some of life’s most stresSful events may include the birth or death of a loved one, moving, starting a new job, marriage or divorce, and family or financial issues. We have all experienced one or more of these events in our lives and, in some cases, more than one at the same time. However, one stressful event that you may not consider is moving to another volunteer fire department. The stress of this move is something many of the general public may not understand and many volunteers may not often think of or talk about.

The attachment, pride, and commitment you have to your volunteer fire department are probably very strong-stronger than most other jobs, groups, or organizations-because in many ways, you are married to your department. If you do not believe it, count how many T-shirts, sweatshirts, and hats you own that are adorned with your department’s name. Is your uniform hanging in your closet, still in the dry cleaner’s plastic and ready for its next use? Do you always pack a shirt displaying your fire company’s name when you travel? Consistently showing a level of pride and commitment to your department is unique to your life; it comes with time, effort, and work, and you will not realize this until you are about to move on to another department.

This change can be very stressful, confusing, and difficult, but if you approach it as a new challenge, you will grow. Although it is not an easy transition, it can make you a better firefighter and a more vital member to your families, old and new.

ACCEPTANCE

Joining a new fire department is like starting a new job, moving into a new home and neighborhood, and divorcing and remarrying all at the same time. Your fire department is your second home, second job, second family, and mistress all in one. It is a large part of who you are, so changing all those things is difficult to accept and adjust to. In addition, you must move your first family, learn your way around an entirely new neighborhood, and get your children into new schools simultaneously. How stressful is that?

You cannot fight these changes and the reasons for them, whether they result in a better job, better home, and better schools for your kids. Your first family comes first; the firehouse can sometimes appear to be the lead family, but if you do not have anything to go home to, where will you be? Acceptance that you are moving on allows you to move forward.

I recently joined my third department in 25-plus years because of moving. For me, the second move was much easier than the first, even with having a family and moving an entire house with two boys starting in new schools. I knew what to expect. Although there was stress, feelings of sadness, and maybe some regrets, I grew and became better with this clean, fresh start. I had some idea as to what I would think, feel, and experience.

SIGN THE APPLICATION

Before you jump in and join the new department, take a week for you and your first family to get accustomed to your new home. Remember, they all will join you; you are not alone in signing the application. Make sure the boxes are unpacked, your children are settled in their new schools, you are set in your new “career” job (if you have changed), and your spouse is ready for you to start running out of the door again. The other aspects of your life must be in order for your fire department life to be in order.

SHOW YOUR PRIDE

When you are ready to join your new department, enter your new station wearing your previous department’s garments (such as a coat or shirt). Show your new department that you still have pride in your old department. Some members might not like it, but the vast majority will accept it and, more importantly, respect you for it. If you are moving locally, the members may already know you are coming. I was greeted at the office door with an application ready.

You may have gained a few years of experience and maybe held an office, and thus you have much to offer any new department. You are not a person right off the street with no fire service knowledge; you know what an engine, a truck, a rescue, and tanker/tender are and the roles of the officers right from the start. That will put you in a position to give to your new home quickly. The question is, how?

THE FAMILY

Joining a new volunteer fire department is similar to marrying into a family. You don’t become a family member just by signing the application. There is time for courting, for learning who the members are and how they tick, and for determining who their leaders are. Then, you have the knowledge and understanding to become a “member” of the family.

Starting out, you might feel like an outsider for some time; how long depends on your department’s standing. Is it a large suburban department with many stations and people moving in and out? If so, you might fall in quickly because of the large number of members and personnel changes over time. If the department covers a smaller town or village where many generations have grown up within the station’s walls, it may take a little more time for you to fit in because of the department’s close-knit nature and its strong desire to “protect the family.” You are the stranger, and it will take time for them to get to know you; this is neither good nor bad. You are new, and you will have to prove yourself to many and allow relationships to grow.

THE GRILLING

There is a good chance you will get the “How much does this person know?” question-and-answer session. Don’t take it negatively! It is a job interview to join the family, and they are simply protecting the family. Questions will come from different sides and for different reasons. At first, members will try to discern your strengths and weaknesses, to find out what you are like, to learn about your first family (because they care), and to make your transition as smooth as possible. You will be prepared more quickly to work and become involved in the family. Once the trust and understanding are there, you will be in the jump seat, and the member next to you will feel more comfortable.

The next questions will concern your background, such as where you are from and your previous department experience. If you move across town or locally, your previous department and its members will be known to your new members. If a member of your new department had an issue with a member or officer of your old department, it will be known, for good or bad. If it does come up, talk to this new member one-on-one. Listen to his side of the story, tell him the facts as you know them, don’t embellish, and let him see where you stand. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; it will either end the problem or help you discover what the problem was.

THREATS

The last and most difficult aspect of the move to a new department is the possibility of perceived threats, which can happen if you enter your department with a great deal of experience. If you were previously a lieutenant or chief, someone who may want to keep or acquire more power or fear losing what he has might look at you as a threat to his position. I have been very lucky not to have experienced this in my current department. However, I know others who have moved who have had to deal with this, and it can be difficult. Be honest in what you know and who you are, and work hard. Find out why there are issues, but be careful whom you ask. Remember, you are new and you do not know who is friends with whom. Listen, get answers where you can, and just keep moving forward. You will learn where these people are coming from over time, and you will be able to understand why someone is acting a certain way. You might understand, accept, or disregard his reasons, but you have to work with him. Consider him as a difficult brother- or sister-in-law; he is family, so work with it and move on.

ON THE RIGS AGAIN

Once you are approved to start responding to alarms, your pride may be hurt; you will no longer be at the same level as you were in your previous department. In the past, you may have been an officer or a “go-to” guy. Now, you are a probie, and with this title comes its limitations and requirements. This may indicate what apparatus you can and cannot ride on or drive, the office you can hold, how you can vote, the type of training you need, and so on. These are your new family’s rules and, like them or not, they are the rules you must follow. So, if you are asked to put the orange shield on your helmet or ride a designated truck, just do it; the situation is only temporary. You will earn more respect if you learn, accept, and live by your new family rules than if you fight them.

During this time, enjoy your decreased responsibility. You were heavily involved in your old department; chances are, you had some level of responsibility. Maybe you were an officer, a trainer, or one of the go-to guys for the difficult questions. You have now earned a vacation of sorts. You have replaced this responsibility with working to learn the new family. Enjoy it, because it will not last forever.

The time will come when you are asked to get involved. If you are ready, do it. Get on a committee, work on a project, teach a drill. As with all volunteer fire departments, there is always work to do and people needed to do it. No station is different.

THE FRESH FACE

Coming into your new department with some experience, some of the younger, hungrier members will ask you questions-sometimes many questions. Let them. They want to learn as you once did. They will want to know from whom they can learn or of whom they can ask questions. When they ask, give them honest answers. The young members want to learn something new, different, or better. It gets them out of the only world they’ve known in the fire service and allows them to see how others do the same job.

Sometimes a different point of view can do wonders for an organization. Don’t expect everything you can affect to change to your way immediately, if at all. You can show different ways of doing things, but no department should take a different department’s ideas and methods blindly and copy them into its own. No two fires are identical, and the same can be said for fire departments. If that was the case, there would not be as many styles, types, and manufacturers of apparatus and equipment.

In this business, there are a thousand ways to do things; some are right, and some are wrong. What one person does at a department might not be the best for you and your department. Just because you did something in the past or someone else does it now does not make it right, wrong, or the only way.

SETTLING IN

Once you have settled in to your new department, make new friends. As you earn their trust, you can start to accept theirs. You probably had one or more friends at your previous department who you could trust with your thoughts and feelings, and you will be able to do the same with some in this new family. They will share information with you on the inner and outer workings of your new family and how best to assimilate into the system. They will discuss the protocols for meetings; drills; events; and, perhaps most importantly, who can and cannot be trusted.

It is difficult to say, and even more difficult to accept, but all organizations contain dishonest, self-serving people who will do things behind closed doors to damage anyone in their way, including you. Fire departments are no different! The vast majority exist to support and protect their communities and to be a part of something bigger than themselves. However, as with any organization, there are members who, for different reasons, hold some level of power or influence in the department. Learning who these people are can be difficult. They can appear to be your best friend. So, take it slow; don’t “show all of your cards” the first few months. Although you cannot enter your new family focusing on who cannot be trusted, realize that there could be some unscrupulous people. Watch, listen, and learn. If you are mindful of proverbs such as “There is a little truth in every rumor,” “Everybody has an opinion,” and “First time, shame on you; second time, shame on me,” you can move forward.

If you are forced to move to a new department, do not to stress over it. You may be starting over in a new town with new people, but you will have much more to offer than the typical probie off the street. Work your way into your new family’s trust. This takes time and effort from both parties. Make sure that your home life, your first family, is in order, then do the same with your second family. The right amount and types of stress make us stronger, smarter, and better.

Accept your new move as a challenge, and let yourself be welcomed by your new family; it will be very rewarding. Also, remember that although you have a new family, you must never forget your old one! Keep in touch by e-mail, social media, and station visits; these efforts are vitally important. The old family represents what made you who you are today.

TIMOTHY PILLSWORTH is a member of the Washingtonville (NY) Fire Department. He is a former chief of the Winona Lake Engine Company, Orange Lake Fire District in Newburgh, New York. He presented at FDIC on Engine Company Operations and is the author and coauthor of many articles on personal protective equipment (PPE), volunteering, and engine company operations and testing. Pillsworth is also author for the PPE chapter in Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II. He is a project engineer for the Army Corp of Engineers in West Point, New York.

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