Advice to a Rookie Firefighter

With the endless hours of training, a question that many new firefighters ask is, "So when does it get to be fun?" The short answer is, never. The demand for your courage and your honor is constant, even when you're off duty. If this is more than you are willing to bear, then now is the time to seek another line of work. Remember, you knocked on our door and this is the price of admission.

The inescapable reality is that you have chosen a profession that is centered on the mitigation of chaos. Firefighters wade through the muck and the mire of human suffering. Our constituents are driven by fear. Consequently, no one calls us when they are having a good day.

Does that mean we should not enjoy our work? Of course not. Corporations spend millions of dollars in an effort to make their employees happy because they know that a happy employee is a productive employee. Enjoy your vocation, but never lose sight of the reality that during your career you will experience incredible high moments of achievement and valleys of utter despair. You will share great laughter as well as indefinable fear with your teammates. And though I have learned that laughter is prevalent throughout the day, those heart-stopping moments of fear are what truly bind a team into a company and forge friendships into family.

An old-timer once said that laughter is OK as long as you don't make having fun the goal of your day. Never forget why the people in your city are paying you to be there — to rescue those in peril. Another mentor explained that you are called a "firefighter" when they pin the badge on you after graduating the academy, but you become a "fireman" once you have had your heart broken. His advice to rookies was always, "I'll call you a 'fireman' when you can tell me what they taste like." This always left the new firefighter wondering what the old veteran was talking about. The answer became clear after that first true low-water mark of a heartbreaking call and the rookie realized the taste the veteran was referring to is that of your own tears. With a supportive hand on the shoulder, the rookie invariably was indoctrinated with the words, "You may not be the hero you once thought you were, but now you are truly a 'fireman.' "

Ours is a business of easing suffering, wiping away tears and freely giving reassuring hugs to strangers. It is risking everything you have or ever will be for someone you will never know. It is the last place in our world where your word must be your bond; otherwise, how else can you place your life into the hands of the people you work with and then ask them to do the same with you? Trust is a public matter with firefighters that is on display for everyone to see. Nowhere else is there the trust that is given to firefighters. We walk in to the homes of strangers and they thrust their most precious possessions, their children, into our arms without question, in the desperate hope that we will make things better. They depend on us to rescue them from the worst, scariest and most dangerous moments of their lives.

Another old-timer once told me that being a firefighter is not a job or a career; it is a calling. The job of a firefighter is special and the trust that goes along with the badge, the uniform, the helmet, the persona, is spectacular in its preciousness, its uniqueness and it is irreplaceable. Never embarrass the job or let down your teammates. A memorable piece of advice I have taken to heart is, don't ever be the first guy to say, "It's too hot."

We serve the needs of others. You may feel like you did a great job, but always be mindful that we have arrived after someone has been victimized. This is the very reason it is more appropriate to call our constituents victims and not customers. A customer has not been victimized. A victim is entitled to your best efforts coupled with your compassion and sympathy. Save the jokes, hand slapping and smiles for the station. Out on the street, everyone is watching you. Always be a professional. That is what people expect and it is what other professionals demand.

You must also understand that being called a professional firefighter does not denote that you receive wages for your time, but rather it implies a level and standard of service delivery. Professional service is always a stipulation you must meet. Edward F. Croker's proudest achievement was not being named chief of the FDNY, but rather in wearing the badge of a simple fireman. In the early 1900s, he wrote the words that have become the hallmark of real, professional, dedicated and courageous firefighters everywhere: "I have no ambition in this world but one, and that is to be a fireman. The position may, in the eyes of some, appear to be a lowly one; but we who know the work which the fireman has to do believe that his is a noble calling."

I leave you with words I received in my rookie year that still ring in my ears: The day you stop caring, the day you think you know it all, the day your compassion has reached an end; that day should be your last day as a firefighter. Love the job. If you love it, you will protect it and nurture it, always striving to be the very best. Have courage while always focusing on the truth found in the words, "I am my brother's keeper."

MICHAEL BRICAULT is a 17-year veteran firefighter serving with the City of Albuquerque, NM, Fire Department. He is a nationally certified fire service instructor, frequent speaker, and author of residential search and rescue tactics and procedures.