The New “Old School”

by Kevin Wattenbarger

While standing in the bay with my crew shortly after relieving the off-going shift the other day, reflecting on another year passing, I suddenly had a revelation. We are now essentially a seasoned crew, three of us with well over 15 years in the fire service, and one nearing 10. As I stood pondering how well my crew has meshed over the years we’ve worked together, it dawned on me that we are now part of the new “Old School.” We have our set ways and beliefs on how firefighters should be, as well as our own expectations regarding the work ethic and “dues paying” of our new members, based on our experiences during our respective careers. Many of us can remember hearing someone state they were “Old School.” Perhaps they mentored us or helped train us when we came on, or were just someone we looked up to. “Old School” doesn’t necessarily mean resistant to progress or change for the better. It has more to do with expectations of how things should be done and how firefighters should be at the core–having heart, for starters.

I now find myself shaking my head at times at the mentality of some of the “next generation.” On the occasions over the past few years when I’ve assisted with local community college firefighter 1 and 2 classes, I see some of the new prospective firefighters wanting to enter the fire service in my area. I often can’t believe the lack of heart and desire by many, even though they are paying to be there. Many of you may have seen a similar occurrence in your area or your own department. It seems there has been a shift in beliefs by this generation compared with previous generations–the belief is that they are owed something, that they should have things handed to them, and they should be coddled and given what they want.

Before I start getting attacked, let me state that there are exceptions to the rule. I’ve seen some great next-generation firefighters, including in my own department, thanks to our hiring standards. But, unfortunately, this seems to be the exception.

So how do we as a fire service address this? With all the media focus on harassment and hostile work environments, it’s not always all that simple anymore. In many instances, normal everyday firehouse banter can be twisted to fall into a category that will hurt someone’s feelings, regardless of whether or not it is truly offensive. So maybe we go to the next best thing–educating our firefighters. We have to provide them with the information that explains the expected behavior and work ethic, since they may not be aware of them. This can be done in the academy, or if they’re hired and not put through an academy, whoever is responsible for them can provide the information when they come on.

In our department, a member of my crew was instrumental in developing a Recruit Bridge Manual. This program is issued to each new hire regardless of whether they have been to an academy or not. It has information on our department and city and also the down-time expectations we have for them on the line (i.e. train, clean, answer the phone within two rings, clean, study, train, clean, study, train–you get the picture). They have to sign an acknowledgment of this manual, turn it into training for review when the manual is completed, and abide by it. All new hires are given the same thing, so no one is singled out or gets inconsistent treatment; they are all rookies and are expected to act as such. This has helped us tremendously.
The next generation has to realize that it is an honor, not a right, to be in the fire service. They have to earn it, work for it, be self-motivated, and must have heart. If they can’t do that, they need to find something else to do and leave the spots for those who get it. Heart and self-motivation lead to new firefighters wanting to develop into great firefighters. Wanting to train, wanting to learn, and not just wanting a “job” is critical. This is necessary to have a long and fulfilling career in the fire service, whether you are paid to do it or not. This will also help them remember what their duty is and that they have to be ready to do what is needed to get the job done, all while being as safe as possible.

It will be interesting to see what the next generation looks like years down the road, when they are part of their new “Old School.” Hopefully, if we bring up the next generation of firefighters coming in correctly, we can ensure that the fire service will stand strong, filled with personnel working hard for what they want and realizing that it’s not only about them, but that it is much bigger than that.

Kevin Wattenbarger is a fire captain with the Olathe (KS) Fire Department, assigned to a quint company. He started in the fire service as a volunteer in 1990, becoming a career firefighter in 1995. He serves as one of his department’s mentor captains for his shift, has an A.A.S .degree in fire science, and is a hazmat and rescue technician.

Due to popular demand, the Olathe (KS) Fire Department has given Fire Engineering permission to post their recruit manual for download. Please CLICK HERE to download the manual (PDF, approximately 1.5 Mb).  Thank you to Kevin Wattenbarger, Joey Heideman, and all the members of the Olathe (KS) Fire Department for sharing this information with the fire service.

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