The Face of Seniority

By: PJ Langmaid

With questions, serious concerns, humility, and deep respect, I set out on a journey while visiting friends in New York City and Boston, to several firehouses to get a small sample of what “time-on-the-job” looks like. In other words, what the face of seniority actually looks like.

Fire departments around the country treat seniority differently. In some departments occupationally, seniority dictates: vacation choice, or assignment and transfers; for others, it has no formal value. The greatest value that I found, however, is that seniority holds a cultural necessity: informal company leadership. At numerous firehouses throughout the Country, mentoring occurs between the senior and the junior members of the company, historically. This necessary commitment to each and every member of the company is built upon a relationship of: trust, tradition, mutual respect, understanding, and expectations.

The difference between instructing and mentoring lies in formative relationships. To ensure operational and managerial success in the company. Historically this commentment both within the firehouse and on the fireground, officers will often rely on the senior members’ guidance. The best of the lot do this with great humility and respect; they are never overbearing.

The officer expects that this informal alliance will help to run the house in a way that is complimentary to the house itself: by not letting personalities, likes and dislikes get in the way. Every member of the company should strive to do what is best for the team by emulating the actions of those who went before, and to do the right thing. Doing the right thing for the good of the unit may not always be the easy or popular thing to do, but it must be done to maintain trust.

Seniority for some, has been experienced over decades of duty, while some gain seniority with much less time. Every firefighter wants to be part of something greater than themselves; some firefighters that are thrust into positions of leadership early on may lack a good example to follow. Veterans who have ‘stayed the course’ offer the new firefighter a wealth of information; for those who want to learn the safest and most efficient way to: stretch a line, force a door, vent a building, get into position, operate under different bosses, and learn when it is okay to stay and when we must leave. Like all greats, the best in the fire service are humble and will not boast of their actions or feats of courage because pride is best when internalized.

How the lessons of seniority are passed on was pointed out to me by a seasoned veteran: The newer members come and sit at the kitchen table or stand at the tailboard listening intently as the senior members tell stories; or uses the current alarm as an opportunity to pass on information and lessons that were hard earned and compiled over many generations of firefighting. Like an oral history handed down to generation after generation, seniority is not always the main focus; however, its variables such as: providing leadership, company accountability, kitchen table judgments, experience-based training, and friendship in all aspects of our noble profession are timeless.

So what is the face of seniority? It looks like many of the faces I have had the opportunity to see firsthand while visiting friends and working side-by-side with others. Regardless of what it may look like in your company, it eventually should look like the one in your mirror.

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