When I speak of “eating our own,” I refer to some species in the animal kingdom that birth their offspring, then devour them to satisfy their hunger and needs.
Firefighters can be no different. We can also “devour” our own in mean-spirited ways that include backstabbing, gossiping and rumor-mongering. Usually, the targets of that maliciousness are the rookie firefighters, EMTs and paramedics. It seems like most everyone has respect for the “older” guys, as though they have earned a spot for themselves and nobody will say anything bad about them. But not the rookies!
It seems the younger people entering our profession are sometimes thrown out there to sink or swim. We put them through firefighter and paramedic school and then ask them to perform as if they were 25-year veterans. And when they do not perform like 25-year veterans, we throw them under the bus.
I got a call recently from an employee who was extremely hurt and frustrated that other firefighters were saying things that were downright demeaning and critical of him behind his back. Not only were they talking about his skills as a firefighter and a paramedic, but they were saying things that were not even job related.
It can hurt and it can cut like a knife through your fabric as a human being. After all, it is human nature – most people like to be liked and thought well of by others. It seems some firefighters, when they “smell the blood in the water” or know they have hit a sore spot with a rookie, continue prodding that area. Some say it is typical firehouse banter and others say it is because firefighters have too much time on their hands during a 24-hour shift.
I can remember my younger days in St. Louis when I was cannon fodder for the older guys. One guy kept trying to push my button for about three months. My strategy was to keep my mouth shut and not respond. One day, I did respond, thinking another strategy would stop it. He stood up at the kitchen table and raised his fists to fight since he did not like what I said. It was obvious – he could dish it out, but he could not take it. I stayed away from him after that and he left me alone.
I have advice for young firefighters and for those who think it is OK to use them as punching bags. To the young firefighters who are also generally EMTs or paramedics – let it run off of you. You have to do your best to ignore it. If you respond, you will embolden some firefighters to think it is OK to continue to bash you, try to humiliate you or play pranks on you.
Another strategy for young firefighters is to align with seasoned veterans and ask them to be your mentors. Probably, the seasoned veterans will be honored to be chosen by you and will take you under their wing to provide you with guidance and support. Another thing that happens when you are under the tutelage of seasoned veterans is that they will defend you if something is said about you when you are not present. Those who may think it is OK to bash you will not be so apt to do so when they know you have the support and guidance of a seasoned veteran.
To the seasoned veterans and those who are not rookies – accept the fact that rookies will make mistakes as they learn the profession and their role. Mistakes can be understandable, as long as they were not made maliciously and the rookies did everything possible to avoid it, including if not sure of something, asking someone or not doing it.
Instead of throwing the rookies under the bus and using them for cannon fodder, you should be providing sage advice for them to follow. The seasoned veterans and those who are not yet seasoned should be teaching the younger firefighters about the brotherhood of the fire service. Bashing them and making them feel low-life is not about brother or sisterhood.
There is no strategy that I can offer to the rookie firefighter that will stop people from making or saying negative comments about you. Make no mistake, you are human. You will make mistakes as a firefighter, EMT or paramedic. If the pace of criticism becomes too severe, you may be doing something wrong. Talk with someone in your fire department that you can confide in and ask for honest feedback.
There is no joy in hearing that someone in your fire department has verbally attacked you on a personal level. But always take the high road, be ethical and never attack anyone on a personal level. As the saying goes, “Never wrestle with a pig. The pig will love it and all you will get is muddy.”
GARY LUDWIG, MS, EMT-P, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a deputy fire chief with the Memphis, TN, Fire Department. He is chair of the EMS Section for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), was appointed to the National EMS Advisory Council by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and is a member of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) EMS Standing Committee. Ludwig has a master’s degree in business and management and is a licensed paramedic. He can be reached at www.garyludwig.com.