By Louis A. Comenale III
You have been promoted to line officer and are assigned to a company with firefighters you once looked up to or with whom you maybe even went through the academy. Relatively speaking, your fire department is young and growing. You’re able to find your groove as a company officer, but then you are assigned a probationary firefighter fresh out of the academy.
Now what? Because your department is still growing, are there guidelines for probationary firefighters to follow? Do you rely on your senior firefighters to acclimate the new firefighter? Do you take on the full responsibility for the probie? On what does the new firefighter need to be trained? In which skills is he adequately trained and in which areas does he need more training? Does the firefighter know what you and your crew expect from him? These are just some of the questions a new company officer might be asking when a probationary firefighter is assigned to his company.
Following are some suggestions for approaching this situation.
Set Expectations Early
Before the probationary firefighter’s first tour, sit with your junior and senior members and lay out your expectations of the probie. Solicit the input of these members; take advantage of their knowledge and experience. Make notes on these expectations and designate aspects or tasks during the probationary period: Which responsibilities will be yours and which will be the members’? Even if the members are given the assignment, you, the company officer, will have the ultimate responsibility.
During the probationary firefighter’s first tour, explain what is expected of him during the probationary period. Refer to your department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) pertaining to the probationary period. Review and make sure he understands the guidelines. The meeting should be formal and a one-on-one between you and the probationary firefighter. The other members will acquaint the probie with additional expectations throughout the tour, during truck checks, at the coffee table, during house duties, and so on.
Create a “Probie Book”
Social media is a great way to connect with great leaders and company officers who can help guide you. Our department created a Probationary Study Guide and Handbook with the help and guidance of departments and officers experienced in this area. We adapted the information for our department. If you use another department’s resources, obtain the proper permissions before modifying and distributing the information to your members.
Our probationary handbook is divided into eight sections. Section 1 presents the history of the department and explains what is expected of a probie. Learning the history of the department is very important; you cannot know where you are going if you do not know where you came from. Knowing the history also helps with buy-in of the mission (mission statement). The remaining sections focus on topics such as fireground operations, emergency medical services, hazmat, technical rescue, and so on.
Each section contains SOPs, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports, and articles from trade magazines pertaining to the theme of the section. The SOPs facilitate the probationary firefighter’s studying them; there is no excuse for not knowing them.
We make additions to the Handbook. After probies complete the process, we ask for suggestions, input, and feedback. These additions help keep the book updated and evolving.
A quiz and skills check-off folder accompany the Handbook. These tools assess the firefighter’s progress and pinpoint shortcomings that need to be addressed before the probation period ends. After each section of the Handbook is completed, the officer and the probationary firefighter review the completed section and then sign off on it.
Our department has designated an array of skills that probationary firefighters should be able to accomplish after completing the academy. These skills can be challenged anytime during the probationary period. These skills include but are not limited to the following: conventional forcible entry, portable ladder skills, setting up a ground monitor, and basic extrication techniques. The assessment tools have benefited all assigned to the company that includes the probationary firefighter. It helps the probie engage with the senior firefighters and the company officer. The skills check-offs allow the company to continually train with the probie and possibly fill in any gaps that exist after the academy training.
Train Every Day
Training every day is vital for all firefighters, but it is paramount for a probationary firefighter. It builds the officer’s trust in the probie’s skill set and knowledge and confidence in the probie’s competency. Make a schedule and stick with it. Our department’s municipal training officer disseminates a drill schedule and an outline of topics that must be accomplished in each calendar month. Alongside the training calendar, I include a schedule of training that is to be accomplished with the probationary firefighter. This fills in the gaps when no formal training is scheduled and notifies the senior and junior firefighters when they should help the company officer with a specific topic. On my last night shift, I set up a schedule for the next tour and share it with other crew members.
Fire calls frequently break up the schedule. If a busy shift does not allow enough time for the predetermined schedule, we hold multiple “back pocket” 10- to 15-minute drills. Examples include “Fill in a blank page from the map book,” which coincides with the training task of having the probies create their own map book and “SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) in the storage closet.” This drill involves placing an SCBA in a small dark room, disconnecting the bottle, tightening the straps, opening the purge valve, and unclipping the bottle retainer strap—essentially making the SCBA a mess. The evolution starts once the PASS (personal alert safety system) alarm is activated. This signals the firefighter to enter the room and troubleshoot the SCBA in full personal protective equipment (PPE), gloves included. The evolution ends when the firefighter emerges from the room with his SCBA donned properly and breathing air.
Explain the importance of and reasons for these drills. New firefighters will ask; be prepared for the question. If you are not sure of an answer, do not make something up on the spot. Explain that you would like to double check and get back to them.
Another great way to engage probationary firefighters is to have them present a training topic—something easy like a drill on the rotary saw or any piece of equipment carried on the rig with which they are familiar. The drill should be about 15 to 20 minutes. Do not set the firefighters up for failure; assist them as needed. Give the probie ample time to come up with the drill and review it with him before it is scheduled. After you have reviewed and approved the content of the drill, have the probie perform the drill to the company members.
Informal training is an excellent way to keep the probies and the company sharp. While doing the truck check or washing the rig after dinner, quiz the probie on the apparatus. Ask questions such as, How much water does the tank hold? What is the ground ladder complement on the rig? What is the spreading force of the hydraulic tool? This will help keep the probie thinking.
Riding Positions Task Book
Create a book of expectations, responsibilities, and skill sets for each riding position on the rig. Reference your department’s SOPs. An easy way to do this is to create a “manual” for your apparatus that defines each position and its corresponding responsibilities. Create quizzes and skill check-offs for every riding position. Each probationary firefighter who comes to my company rides in the Hook and Can position. They have to pass a written test and complete a skill set that must be done before they can start training on the next position. These skills are tested with a stipulated time requirement based on national and state standards.
For example, in addition to the New York State standards, our department requires the probationary firefighter to conventionally force an inward swinging door in a given time frame. The test is given twice—early on and then on the tour on the rig at the end of the probationary period. These quizzes act as measuring sticks: The first one assesses how much the probie knows coming in and what information we need to concentrate on; the second shows how much the firefighter has progressed.
Get Engaged and Stay Engaged; Be a Leader
When I became an officer, I found the book The Station-Ready Rookie: Firefighter Preparation Beyond the State Skills Test by Collin S. Blasingame, Justin C. Dickstein, and John E. Gomez of great help in refreshing my mindset relative to what the probationary firefighter should be doing. I buy this book for each probationary firefighter assigned to my company. It is a fast read, so I have other books available for them when they finish reading this one. When questions arise during conversations, answer them if you can. When you don’t have the answers, having firefighting textbooks and articles will enable you and the students to research the responses. Today’s firefighters do not follow blindly; they want to know the “why” behind the things we do. Be prepared to answer.
Give positive feedback and also constructive criticism. It is inevitable that probies may make a mistake. Let them know in a professional manner that they did wrong, why it was wrong, and how to fix it for the next time. If you have a good company, you will not have to give much feedback: Your junior and senior firefighters will do that. However, as the officer, you will have to follow up to make sure the probie understands.
Get out of the office. The time you spend with the company will pay huge dividends. Get in the firehouse early, stay late, go to bed later, or wake up earlier. Don’t waste time doing computer work or paperwork during normal working hours. Yes, the work still needs to get done, but it is important to have the discipline to do it at more opportune times. The more time you spend out on the truck bay floor helping with the duties and generally engaging with them, the greater the return you will get from your probationary firefighters.
The end goal is to educate and train your probationary firefighters so they can become confident and competent firefighters and maybe one day take over your position as the company officer.
Louis A. Comenale III is the lieutenant/municipal training officer for the Gates Fire District in Rochester, New York, where he has served for 13 years, the past four years as a lieutenant. He is a third-generation firefighter. He is a New York State fire instructor and a nationally certified fire instructor II. He has an associate degree in fire protection technology.