BY JESS ANDERSON
How many times have you said or heard, “I wish they would have told me that when I started” or “Why didn’t they tell me that in the academy?” When you are a new firefighter, a lot of emphasis is placed on the physical skills that will be required of you. You spend weeks putting on your “breather,” pulling hose, and throwing ladders. And when your tower time is done, you are thrown to the wolves in the fire station. Most agencies don’t give you any hints as to how to survive in the station. They just expect that you will be fine or figure it out through trial and error.
When I first started my fire service career, I didn’t have a clue about it. I thought I did, but I really didn’t. You see, I grew up in a fire service family. I spent a lot of my youth playing at the fire station, hanging out with my father and his crew, and enjoying all of the fun around the station without understanding the way things worked.
I was in college for more than a year before I really started to understand. My first fire academy instructor, Captain Mike Litvinchuk, had a very colorful way of enlightening his students about their place in the fire service. He started off by telling us that paid firefighters were like whales in the ocean-majestic, beautiful, admired by many. Probationary firefighters were whale dung that sinks to the bottom of the sea. Student firefighters and other “wannabes” were the scum that grows on the dung at the bottom of the sea and wants so badly to be that piece of dung. That has stuck with me throughout the years and has been very helpful in maintaining my perspective.
Even armed with this newfound perspective, I still didn’t fully understand my place. After successfully completing my college fire academy, I moved into the fire station as a student firefighter. I was very enthusiastic and ready for anything. I was 19 years old and already had some experience as a Fire Explorer, a dangerous combination. I was so eager to show my knowledge that I came off as cocky and annoying. The engineer I was working with pulled me aside one day. He was harsh but diplomatic. He told me I was very knowledgeable, but I needed to keep some of that knowledge to myself. Apparently, I was coming across like the annoying student in the class who knows all the answers and puts his hand up first and obnoxiously says, “Oh, oh, I know! I know! Pick me!” That’s not how I wanted to be viewed, and I am grateful to that engineer to this day.
Shortly after being enlightened by the engineer, my Fire Explorer scout troop had a presentation from an old gruff captain. He had a small document he called the “Rookie Survival Guide.” It had a few nuggets in it about fire station life; for the most part, however, it was a finger-wagging presentation of what is expected of you at the fire station. I paid very close attention to what was being said and did my best to explain the importance of it to our younger members just about to start their journey.
Over the course of my career, I have used this document and expanded it immensely. It has helped me to adjust to new environments in the public and private sectors. It has helped me to work successfully as a Fire Explorer scout, student firefighter, volunteer firefighter, private ambulance paramedic, reserve firefighter, and now career firefighter.
The components of the “Guide” presented below are not in priority order: No one point is more important than any other. Some of the advice may be more helpful than others. Much of the information is simply common sense but needs to be emphasized.
HOW TO GET ALONG
This article does not cover every situation that may be encountered during the probationary period. It, however, has valuable information concerning one of the most difficult and hazardous parts of our occupation, getting along with the people with whom we work. It contains advice and guidance from respected officers in several local fire departments, including the Alameda County, Fremont, Union City, and Hayward (CA) fire departments. This advice has not been endorsed by anyone. Although the information is directed at the newest members of the fire department, much of it pertains to all members and can be applied to any stage of your career.
• Rookies have to “earn their wings.” The members of the department want to accept you and will go out of their way to help you earn your wings, but this acceptance has to be earned. It is not given. A bad reputation acquired during the probationary period will be hard to shake. The sooner you get in there and start to earn the respect of others, the sooner you will begin to enjoy your job.
• Get to work early, and pay attention to what is being said at the coffee table during shift change. Much of what is being said is important information for rookies. A key point here is to remember that nobody likes a minuteman. A lot can happen during change of shift. Many fire departments change shift at 0800 hours. It is an unwritten rule that you should get to work a minimum of 30 minutes early, to limit the chance of a late call. If you get to work early, you get a full report of what happened the shift before, what needs to be done that day, and what can wait until the next day. Also, the other shift will notice the extra effort to be at work early, and this practice helps to cultivate good habits.
• If you are going to be late because of traffic or some other reason, call and have someone stand by for you. Communication is key. Most people are understanding of life’s circumstances and will go out of their way to help. They also expect you to extend the same courtesy to them. However, being chronically late or continually taking advantage of people will earn you the reputation of an inconsiderate person, and that reputation will spread rapidly. Most of the time people won’t notice that you are early, but they sure will notice when you are late or even right on time.
• Rookies are the last to kick back and the first to start work. A rookie should be the first one to get up and start working. New employees should have a youthful enthusiasm about every aspect of the job. They should be self-motivated and always look for something to do. There is always something that needs to be done. If you do this, you will find that work is contagious. Your coworkers will take pride in showing you how to do things, and they will feel good about the accomplishments you make. Also, since they have already earned their wings, they have also earned the right to stop working before you, or not work as hard as you. This is also a test to see if you will slack off or stop before you are finished.
• Realize that you are at the bottom of the totem pole; act accordingly. As a new person to the organization, certain behaviors are expected of you. You will be challenged in many ways, and you will be expected to meet those challenges with enthusiasm. Some people feel the desire to give the new person a hard time. It can be difficult, but that is your place. Just realize that it is temporary and it will be over before you know it. It will then be up to you to decide how you treat the next generation.
• Open, honest communications are a must. If you have weaknesses, don’t wait for them to be found out. Ask for help, and work on them. Your coworkers are not mind readers. Most firefighters have big egos and don’t want to show any kind of weakness. But rest assured that whatever your weakness is, it will be exposed and exploited. Your life then will be full of pain and misery. But, if early on you learn to set your ego aside and ask for help in all aspects of your career, you will be accepted and respected much faster than if you try to cover up your shortcomings.
• If you have had previous experience with other fire departments, don’t mention how good your other department was at doing hoselays or throwing ladders. No one in your department cares. All fire departments have a lot of pride in the organization they built. The firefighters have spent a lot of time and energy making their department the best possible. The fire service also hires many people with a lot of experience from other agencies. The last thing any firefighter wants to hear is how much better a rookie’s previous agency was. Firefighters think that all employees should feel that their agency is the best place for them to work and that new members should take the same amount of pride in their department as veteran members.
Also, don’t boast or brag about how great you were at your previous job. Nobody cares.
Boasting and bragging are signs of insecurity. We all have previous experience to draw on; that’s what makes us diverse and unique. Humility will get you far.
• Don’t be a smart aleck. This department was doing fine long before you got there and will be doing fine long after you’re gone. You will be heavily judged by your attitude. Most smart alecks are negative and don’t really contribute to the betterment of the organization. If you are not actively trying to change the things you don’t agree with in a productive way, you have no right to complain.
• Always use the proper chain of command. Don’t go over the head of your company officer. Your officer and other firefighters are great resources and can help you with your issue or problem. If they don’t know the answer, they should be able to point you in the right direction. Remember, most problems and issues are not unique, and someone has been in your situation before.
• Have good personal hygiene and a neat appearance. The public has a certain expectation of what a firefighter should be. You need to look the part. If you are neat, clean, and have no offensive odors, your coworkers and customers will be appreciative.
• Do not try to make changes overnight. Many people are very enthusiastic when they get hired. But, this enthusiasm can work against them if they try to make changes in the organization right away. If you take your time, do your homework, and bring up your ideas in the right forum (after you have some time under your belt), your life will be a lot less frustrating.
• Always notify your officer when you will be taking time off (comp time, trades, vacation, and the like). This will help the officer in planning the schedule.
• If you are done with your assignment, routine or emergency, see if other crew members need assistance. Team players are generally accepted faster.
• Some “veterans” have territories or possessions that are near and dear to them. Respect this. They may include a place to sit when eating, a coffee cup, a bed, or a recliner. To infringe on the veteran’s territory is to invite his wrath. Look for and identify these “territories.” Be patient; you will eventually get yours. Some senior firefighters will claim these territories just to challenge you and see how you will respond. It is a game that has been played for generations and will probably continue for many more generations. Remember your place, and keep your sense of humor.
• When sitting down to eat, look for the seat with the worst view of the television. This will be your seat unless you are told otherwise. Some stations and crews are very territorial when it comes to their seat at the dinner table. Ask before you sit.
• Respect others’ property and space. A good rule of thumb is, “If it isn’t yours, leave it alone.” You will work with all kinds of people. Some may be neat freaks; others may be sloppy; most fall somewhere between these extremes. Try not to touch people’s personal belongings in the dorm rooms or locker room. Try to keep a neat house; clean up dishes and cups, papers, and other items. This is usually noticed and appreciated.
• Participate in station rituals, such as rolling the dice. These are fun team-building exercises and are part of the camaraderie of the fire station. Station rituals are very near and dear to the firefighter’s heart. As a new firefighter, you most likely will be invited to participate. If you are, just remember your place and play the game accordingly. If you play for station duties, be sure to pick the worst one; don’t be afraid to help others with theirs. By doing this, you most likely will be accepted by your crew a little faster.
• Judge department members based on your experience with them. Don’t go by gossip or what you have heard through the rumor mill. This advice is very important. We all know that the fire station is like a sewing circle. Rumors and gossip are the norm. Get to know each individual, and base your personal judgments about the person on your interactions with him. Sometimes, one member may have a “past history” with another department member and hold grudges. You should not take on these grudges. Make up your own mind.
• Clean up your mess. Nobody who works here has volunteered to be your Momma.
If everyone cleaned up after himself, a rookie wouldn’t have nearly as much to do. Nobody wants to look at or touch your dirty underwear. Be neat and courteous.
• If it’s dirty, clean it. If it needs polishing, shine it. If it’s dull, sharpen it. The key here is that there is always work to be done. A rookie firefighter has plenty of assignments. Idle time can be dangerous. Look for things to do. Something is always dirty, hand tools need attention, and most stations have specific responsibilities within the department. Working hard and staying busy make the day go faster, and you will gain respect and keep out of trouble.
• Be yourself. Don’t try to act like other crew members. You were hired for a reason. An organization doesn’t want all members to have the same personality. You will get accepted more quickly by being yourself.
• Always leave it better than you found it. If you use or borrow something, treat it like it’s yours, and return it in better shape than you found it.
• Keep your ears open and your mouth shut. You can learn a lot more. You have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Participate in conversations, and be yourself, but stay away from rumors, gossip, or opinions. They will only get you in trouble.
• Remain open to as many suggestions as possible. Don’t be narrow-minded. There are various ways of doing things. You never know when the information you learn may be useful.
Fire and EMS services are filled with very experienced people with very diverse backgrounds and training. Tap into these resources. Most people want to share their knowledge. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You will learn a tremendous amount of information that may help you get out of a jam.
• Don’t run to the captain with every little problem. Officers and coworkers will observe your ability to solve problems. Company officers are busy. If you can, try to ask another firefighter or the apparatus operator to help with problems you can’t solve. Try to use all your resources before going to the captain. Your company officer will appreciate it.
• A little tolerance will go a long way. Don’t be quick to judge or write people off because of their different views. Others’ lifestyles and opinions will not always be the same as yours. People of all walks of life have chosen this career. Some firefighters have multiple degrees, some have owned their own businesses, some have been successful in totally different career fields, and some may have different religious and political beliefs. Yet, we all seem to get along and share the common goals of saving lives and protecting property. We may not always see eye to eye on every subject. This diversity makes it possible for us to better meet the diverse needs of our communities.
• If you mess up, take your licks. If you make mistakes, don’t alibi, try to shift blame, or come up with some other lame excuse. We all make mistakes. It’s part of the learning process and part of earning your wings. It’s only a mistake if you don’t learn from it. Your crew is going to give you a hard time, but they are going to enjoy watching you develop your skills. Always try your hardest and learn from your mistakes as well as the mistakes of others.
• If your actions or mistakes affect someone else, apologize. Getting along with others is difficult for new firefighters. You are thrust into an environment where you don’t know anyone very well and where everyone seems to be judging you. Tread lightly. If you should do something that offends someone, intentionally or not, apologize. A simple “I’m sorry” goes a long way with people, as does saying “please” and “thank you.”
• It’s not how you mess up; it’s how you recover. Mistakes will happen, but if you keep your cool and overcome your errors, that is what will be remembered.
• Do not take “digs,” “shots,” or “slams” personally. Remember, the other department members’ lives depend on you. They are testing you to see if you can take the heat. Most of these comments are to give you a hard time and are not meant to hurt your feelings. If you pay attention, you will see that everyone gets a turn, even the captain. Just make sure the comments stay within the appropriate boundaries.
• Respect all department members regardless of rank. Learn about the history of your organization and the roles department members have played in it. That veteran snoring in the recliner in front of the television earned his wings years ago and probably helped make the department what it is today. Find out who your teammates in the department are.
• Don’t give your opinion unless asked for it. Be cautious: Some senior members may try to bait you into saying something you might regret. In general, it’s a good idea to be careful about venturing your opinion the first year on line.
• Don’t ask questions for which you already have the answers. You will not impress anyone with your “vast knowledge.” And, nobody likes a “kiss-up.”
• Don’t be critical of department members who may not be as knowledgeable as you on new methods. If anyone is going to save your hide when you get into a tight spot, it will probably be these veterans. Extensive training has taught you how to do something the right way, but experience teaches you which way to jump when you have only a split second to make a decision. Fire department recruit academies are very thorough and teach the most defined techniques. Line personnel are much more savvy. They don’t necessarily scream out all of the ladder commands while throwing a ladder, but they get it up any way they can with as little effort as possible. The phrase “Work smarter, not harder” really comes into play when you get older. When you are a new firefighter, you will work with firefighters in their 50s, some of whom may have suffered injuries. If you want to know the best way to lift something or throw a ladder, these firefighters can tell you. Find that fine balance point between experience and knowledge.
• Don’t be afraid of practice. The veterans will take pride in helping you. Make sure to thank them for their efforts. Most firefighters love to pass on what they know to the next generation of firefighters. They may all have different techniques, but they like to help. They all want to see rookies succeed.
• Get involved in department and union activities to round out your knowledge. When you first get hired in the fire service, you hear the term “Brother” and “Sister” thrown around so loosely that you don’t really understand what it’s all about at first. You hear about contract talks and grievances, but you don’t really understand. You are just happy to finally be on line. As time goes by, you start going to union-sponsored community events, such as “Fill the Boot” or a pancake breakfast to raise money for great causes. You get to interact with the community outside of an emergency situation. Get involved on some level. Eventually, you may want to become a union shop steward or an executive board member and represent your brothers and sisters and the issues important to them. These things will give you a “big picture” perspective of the fire service.
• Go the extra mile for the public; the citizens are your real bosses. Your patience may wear thin, especially at 0200 hours when you are picking up this person and putting him back in bed for the fifth time in a month. You still must treat such people with dignity and respect. The citizens count on the fire department to help them in their time of need. It is important that you always put your best foot forward. If you are there for them in their emergency or moment of need, they will be there for the fire department in its time of need.
• The first day you report to shift, ask your captain, “What do you expect of me? How do we operate at an emergency scene or in the station?” Every company officer is a little different. Find out what the officers’ preferences are. Some officers have “standing orders,” their personal game plans for different situations. They can’t possibly go into all of the different situations you may face; some things you will have to learn on your own. But, asking your officer as many questions as you can think of to make sure you are all on the same page will make your officer feel more comfortable in that you understand what is expected of you. Even if you have been on the job for several years, it’s still a good practice to communicate with an officer with whom you have never worked. It’s a good habit and also a courtesy.
• Speak your words softly, in case you have to eat them. If you boast, brag, or talk trash, you had better back it up with skill, or be prepared to eat those words. The best way to speak is by your actions.
• If you see a safety concern that is not being addressed, speak up. Captains and chiefs are not always going to see everything. Most fire officers are open to communication from their personnel.
• Be swift to act. Allow your actions to speak louder than words. And be deadly accurate with your abilities.
• Remember that you are always a firefighter, whether on- or off-duty. Your neighbors know it, the checker at the store knows it, everyone knows it. Act accordingly. Most people in the public put firefighters on a pedestal. With this respect comes a high level of responsibility. When you wear that uniform or place that sticker on your car, you represent not only yourself and your organization but also the entire fire service.
• Continue the hunger that got you here. Just because you got the job doesn’t mean it’s time to coast. There are literally thousands of highly qualified people waiting to take your place. Be proud of your organization. Participate in the programs you believe in, and start a new program if the one you want doesn’t exist.
• Your crew members are willing to put their lives on the line for you; be ready to put yours on the line for them. ■
■ JESS ANDERSON, a third-generation firefighter, is an engineer with Alameda County (CA) Fire, which he joined in 2001. He began his fire service career as an Explorer scout with the Fremont (CA) Fire Department in 1994. He previously served as a student firefighter and, later, a volunteer firefighter with the Alameda County Fire Department and as a paramedic for Mercy Ambulance (now AMR) in Las Vegas, Nevada, and a reserve firefighter with the Boulder City (NV) Fire Department.