RELATIONSHIPSFirehouseOn the first day, give them more than just knowledge 

On the first day, give them more than just knowledge 

By: Skip Stephens, Fire Chief at Cottleville Fire District

My first day on the job is one I will never forget. As green as a five-dollar bill, I was following my crew members around like a lost puppy. I was just trying to soak up as much as I could from the veterans so I didn’t mess up and do something embarrassing. Full of anxiety and fear of being judged as unworthy of my new position, I was trying to get through the day. 

I did well by following everyone around until just after lunch. I’m not sure how it happened, but I looked up from where I was sitting at the kitchen table and everyone was gone. “Oh crap, I’ve missed a call!” raced through my mind. My worst nightmare had come true. I jumped to my feet and sprinted out to the engine bay and low and behold, the truck was still standing tall and shiny, ready to go. I walked around the bay looking for any crew member but found no one. I decided I would go find the Captain in his office, but nothing was there but an empty desk. “Okay, this is weird,” I thought as I was really starting to worry that maybe I was missing training or some other required activity. I went to the training classroom, but it was deserted. Then it hit me … everyone is in the weight room working out. Nope. It was empty, too. I was at a loss. Out of desperation, I opened the door to the bunk room, which was a community-style shared bunk room along with a small TV area with a few old recliners. The light was off and the room was dark. I closed the door went back to the kitchen and sat by myself. I really had no clue what to do. 

It was now 12:50 and I knew that our allotted time for lunch was over at 1:00. I could’ve just sat there for 10 minutes and the mystery would have resolved itself, but my nerves overtook me. After a minute, I got back up, walked back out to the bay, and once again found no one. I was now on a mission, like a detective to leave no stone unturned. After all, my career depended on finding my crew. My stress level could not have been any higher. I went back to the bunk room and flipped on the lights to see if I could find some clues. The moment that dark turned to light, the mystery was solved. 

“Hey!” yelled the Engineer, “what is wrong with you, Rookie?” 

My captain, engineer, and veteran back-step simultaneously rose to sit upright in their recliners from a fully laid-back, supine position. Oh, no. They were all taking a nap! 

“I’m so sorry guys. I didn’t know you were in here; I was looking all over for you.” 

Everyone laughed and from that point forward, I too, (tired or not) started napping from 12:30 – 1:00. While this is a true and humorous story about my first day, it underscores the fact that our newbies need all of the help and guidance that we can give them … especially on their first day.

Assume they know nothing (because they usually don’t)

Everyone knows that we have to show our probationary firefighters the ropes of the job. But we must go further than showing them the truck and the mop closet. Until proven otherwise, we should assume that they know nothing about firehouse culture, routines, tradition, and pride. These are the things that must be taught. What seems like common knowledge or common sense to you and me may be like a foreign language to the probie. This is especially true given how our youth are now more adept at building cribbing with their thumbs on a Minecraft screen than they are with real tools in their hands. Additionally, try to help new firefighters understand the “why” behind everything we do. 

Give them more than knowledge 

Just as important, a dose of empathy goes a long way. Remember what it was like on your first day – the anxiety and nerves. Think about how people treated you in your first 3 to 6 months on the job. I bet you can still remember those who truly took you under their wing and those who treated you unkindly and with disrespect. The same will be true for every new firefighter that walks through the door. Teach them lessons, but also treat them right. 

You can have them clean the toilets, mop the floors, and make the coffee while also giving them the respect they deserve as human beings who have chosen to serve their community. Hazing and other means of torture have no place in the modern fire service. The mental health of all of our members, even our newest, should be everyone’s priority. That does not mean that we are becoming a softer fire service, it means that we are becoming stronger. How you treat your new firefighter will be how your new firefighter learns to treat other new firefighters during their career. Your kindness and respect can travel generations forward. 

After all, first impressions do last a lifetime and someday, years down the road, you never know that next probie might someday end up being your captain or chief! 

Photo by Stephen Baer

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