Welcome back to school from your break. We have to move quickly now because the days fly by as we are completing our fire service education. You were selected to serve your community, passed your probation, and completed your first three years as a firefighter. Congratulations, but now let's get back to work!
The elementary school days are behind you and it's time to progress into the junior high phase of your career. Let's take some time to look at the past while progressing toward the future. In the first three years we hope to not let our peers down and blend in to our new surroundings. This is a good place to get comfortable and not progress your career. Today's fire service is a ever-changing business where comfort can get you killed. So once you have reviewed your report card you need to decide if it was acceptable or if it still needs work. Whatever you decide it's time more the next level. Junior high is here so let's get on the bus!
Junior High (Years 3 - 8): The Growing Up Phase
Junior high is a transition phase from a child into a young adult. From the same prospective the junior high school part of your career is very similar. In this phase you have gained the knowledge and the experience and hopefully the respect of your peers. By now you should have responded to a mixed number of responses. So where to next?
Well it's off to further your education and training to prepare yourself for the new challenges that you will be facing. It's time to progress from the bread and butter type runs to the more specialized aspects of the modern fire service. junior high is also the time when you should be looking ahead to high school and choosing a direction to go. For many of us that direction is a fire officer position. So while you are learning remember to start focusing on leadership, team building, and tactics because hopefully soon you will be the one in charge.
Specializing in certian aspects of the fire service is something that each of us should do. I would advise you to choose something that you have an interest in. If you like the medical side you should choose to be a paramedic; if you like ropes then a rope rescue class should be in your future. No matter what specialty you choose, you should approach it head-on just like your early days of fire training, while grading yourself the whole way. So let's choose the paramedic pathway of specialization. Well, you are wise beyond your years. I say that you are wise do to the evolution of the modern day fire service. Fire departments who don't run EMS may cease to exist in the future. Fire and EMS go hand-in-hand and together each will continue to grow the services they offer their in communities.
So with stethoscope in hand, off to paramedic training you go. The first thing to remember about any of these specialized courses is that you need to rely on the study skills from your elementary days. You spend the next one and a half years training on everything that a medic is responsible for. From intubation to intraosseous needles, remember to keep the good grades coming. I'm sure that your instructor's will keep handing them out but don't just stop there. Keep grading yourself on performance from your point of view. Sometimes we can be more honest and open with ourselves. Be fair, but also be stern. Remember that we are trying to be the A student. Paramedicine is a tough specialty that requires a lot of skills so remember that when you choose it, but also remember that as a paramedic you can also help a lot of people.
All the while you are in class specializing in some sort of rescue you will continue to respond to emergencies. Continue to grade your performance, but add one more area of evaluation, leadership. Leadership is a skill that takes time to develop, so this is a good time to develop it. Start by making yourself more aware of your surroundings. Next time you respond to an emergency call put yourself in your officer's shoes and go through it from his or her point of view. When you return from the call go over how you would have handled it. You may even begin to talk with your officer and ask, why you handled that call that way. You may be surprised at their answer and when they explain themselves it may let you in on a whole new perspective.
A good way to evaluate yourself on leadership is to look back at the response and see how self-motivated you are. Did someone need to tell you everything that needed done? By this point you should have a good idea on the tasks that need completed. Did your officer need to tell you to street roll the hose or to restock the EMS bag? While you were doing these tasks did you grab some of your firefighters to help you? These are some small steps toward true leadership and start placing you in the officer frame of mind.
The junior high school period is also a good time to seek out help with a skill that continues to give you trouble. For example, you have run a few fires where you have had trouble with pulling a ceiling. You are having trouble mastering the technique of using a pike pole and gave yourself a C. This is a good time to seek out some help before you are expected to lead. Where do you start? With today's technology driven age start with a Google search! You might be surprised by the things you can learn from the internet. If that doesn't provide the answer's that you are looking for you may need to go back and find an instructor from your past to help you. Remember that we are striving to make A's and while we may never make straight A's we sure are trying hard to make that goal happen!
How are the grades looking now? The junior high days have come to a rapid conclusion, you have achieved your goal as you have now passed your national registry test and you are now a paramedic. Congratulations, you deserve a big pat on the back. With your completion of the program your grades must have been good, but how good? Let's say that you are at a B level. That is a great starting spot, comfortable, but not cocky is a good place to start your paramedicine career. But how was your leadership grade? Hopefully you are at a C level because the promotion test is next week and you ready to tackle it? Watch out high school here I come!
High School (Years 9 - 15): The Mature Phase
Welcome to the high school years for your fire service career! You have made your way from a new student to the time where the real learning and experience transforms you from a teenager to an adult. With that in mind how are they similar? Well, by this time you should be ready to step into an officer position. A junior officer in the fire service is usually where the leadership responsibilities start. You have studied and passed the test, made your move from the jumpseat to the front seat, and now what? Well, it's time to take the lead and direct your crew. It is a hard transition for some people to make, but hopefully due to your report card you should be well prepared.
First thing is first. When switching from a follower to a leader role is the need to establish what kind of leader do you want to be. Do you want to be old school or new school or a mixed bag of both? Maybe a good leader mixes the old with the new. There are appropriate times to use both philosophies but knowing when is what makes a good leader great. For example, while making sure station duties and truck checks are done is fine and good to use the understanding role as a leader. These are important roles and responsibilities but under these circumstances an easy going approach is welcome. Switch gears and put you and crew on the scene of a house fire and things become a little more dependent. There are certain things that must be completed and tasks accomplished while keeping a close watch on everyone's saftey. Although having your crew be able to think by themselves is great, there are times when everyone must also be directed to perform. A old school drill instructor can be used at this point to accomplish the goal and following department sop's . Each style of leadership can be chosen but always remember that the young firefighters are building their impressions from your performance. So what would be your grade on leadership? This is when you can lean on your followers to asign your grade. If they listen and give you 100 percent you deserve that A, but if they are having a hard time following your directions and seem resistant it may be time to reevaluate and try a different style.
The high school phase of your fire service career is also the time to start the mentoring process. We all would have loved to walked into school and had a high school kid look after us. "Pay it forward" is a saying that comes to mind, it means take what you have learned at pass it along. A wise man says the true measure of a person is what we leave behind. So it's time to take your knowledge and experience and pass it along to the new crop of firefighters. You don't have to be a instructor to accomplish this task. You can make a bigger impression and make a bigger difference on a student in the everyday environment of the fire station and our runs. Early in my personal career I was fortunate enough to have a chief officer select me and watch over my career and to this day I am beyond thankful. Making a difference in a young recruit's career can leave a lasting impression on them and your whole department. When you are selected as a mentor I hope your grades are in order.
Thank you for taking a trip down memory lane as we look at our fire service careers. I hope that this flash back stirred some feelings and memories while focusing squarely on the future. While report cards seem to always haunt us, they are an excellent means of evaluation of our careers. Most of us say that if we could only go back knowing what we know now, we would have done better. The best part of our careers is that we are now adults and we do know how.
So it's time to put your lessons to work. With the new generation of fire and EMS professional's coming into our chosen profession being more educated than ever, a lesson from the senior and the school of hard knocks is immeasurable! Everyone be safe and always keep your backpack ready and grade card at hand!
RYAN PENNINGTON, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a firefighter/paramedic with the Charleston, WV, Fire Department. He is currently assigned to Station 7 and a member of the West Virginia Task Force 1 USAR team. He has over 15 years of combined fire, rescue and EMS experience. Ryan is currently a West Virginia State Instructor 2, Hazmat Technician, and Certified Fire Officer 2. Ryan was a guest on the Engine Company Operations in Today's Buildings podcast on Radio@Firehouse. You can reach Ryan by e-mail atRyan33@suddenlink.net.