Online Exclusive

14 Tips for the New Firefighter to Start Off on the Right Foot

The old phrase "you never have a second chance to make a first impression" is a very important phrase to live by. So many people make their first impression to be a not-so-memorable one, and wish they could have it all over to do again. Unfortunately that usually never occurs. Life is not supposed to be fair, so what we can do is learn from others good points as well as their not-so-good points. Watching others succeed or fail can be very educational if you are able to pick up on what worked well for them and did not work so well for them. Here are some suggestions to get you started off on the right foot once you get hired onto a new fire department as a probationary firefighter:


1. Be aggressive at all times. First to details, last to leave.

When I say aggressive, I mean it in a positive way. Don't be so aggressive that you are annoying, over-persistent, or borderline scary to be around. Be willing to always learn new things, new concepts, and new ways of doing things. Be the first one into the scene on the medical call. Be the first one up in the morning and the last one to go to sleep. Be the first one at the station in the morning and the last one to leave. Be the first one to volunteer for the not-so-desirable jobs or duties (like when you're at the haz mat drill in the middle of the summer and the instructor asks "who wants to volunteer to put on the level A suit," and you are the least senior individual at the drill, be the first one to volunteer to do it.

2. If it is dirty - clean it. If it is empty, fill it.

If you dirty something at the firehouse (dishes, silverware, tools, apparatus, equipment, etc.), take the few minutes to clean it up then and there. I've heard the famous line "I'll get to it" so many times it gets old. If it were easy as that, it wouldn't be a problem. Unfortunately "I'll get to it" usually never happens, and the mess that A shift didn't clean up, B shift gets to clean up the next day. Nice.

3. If it rings, answer it before anyone else does.

I laugh when I see probationary firefighters running for the phone so that they can be the first one to pick it up or so that they can get it before anyone else. That is almost to the extreme. Don't injure yourself or others in the process.

4. Do not be late to anything.

Showing up on time for work is the first start. I remember the first day of my recruit academy when I got hired. It was 0800 hours and the fire chief was giving his welcome to the fire department speech. Well, we were one body short and were starting to wonder where our one classmate that we had met last week was. Well, he comes running in at around 0830 hours walks right through the door that was next to the fire chief. The fire chief joked about it, but you could tell he wasn't happy. Would you be? That recruit would have been terminated on the spot by many departments. Although he is actually one of our best employees now, he did not make a good impression with the Chief or the Training Staff. He lived about 60 miles away and did not leave himself adequate time to parade through the stop-and-go traffic on the freeway. He should have left so early that he always gave himself an hour of fudge time. When I got hired, the smartest thing I ever did was rent an apartment a block away from our training facility. Even if my car didn't start (which has happened before), I knew I could walk to work and still make it on time.

Also, when the Captain tells you that the engine needs to leave at a certain time for a class across town, don't be in the middle of doing something that can't be easily stopped. Be ready to go at that time. A few months ago, I let the crew know that we needed to leave by 0840 hours so that we could make it to our training facility. It is only a 10 minute drive, but I wanted to leave us a 10 minute cushion because I hate walking in late or arriving late when you have other people (like the Training Chief) waiting for you so they can start the drill. Well, I walk outside to get on the Engine and the probationary firefighter is in the middle of washing the rig, and it is full of soap. Why would he even have started such a project if he didn't have the time? I commend him for taking the initiative, but he should have better prioritized his duties. Wear your watch and set your alarm to give you a five-minute warning if necessary. Be ready to go when your crew is!

5. T.V. will not be watched without permission of your company officer.

When I was on probation, I did everything I could to not even be near the TV, because I knew I would be tempted to watch it. While everyone went to watch TV, I usually took my books to the study room or went to the apparatus room to study something on one of the rigs. This is what is expected in most departments. However, every department is different. I remember hearing from one crew while I was on probation that they thought I didn't like them or their company. I asked them why and they said it was because I wasn't watching TV with them. I politely explained to them that I was on probation (like they didn't know) and that I had studying to do. What was their reaction? Oh, we thought you just didn't like us!

Then, on another occasion I was studying during the Super Bowl and the Captain came up to me (a Captain that is usually strict with probationary firefighters) and asked me to watch the Super Bowl. I politely declined, stating that I had studying to do. He then said that he was ordering me to do so, since it was our local team (San Francisco 49'ers) and that I needed a break. I then made a point to sit at the kitchen table, not the recliners, because knowing my luck, as soon as I hit the recliners I would have taken a nap (and then the camera would have come out and the reputation would have begun)! Since I was not the one that wanted to disobey a direct order from a supervising officer, then I reluctantly obliged. Last thing I wanted to do was get written up for insubordination (I could see the Battalion Chief reading that report "he refused to watch television with the crew"). But the point I'm trying to make is that I didn't initiate watching television on my own, I made the officer order me to do so. That's my story and I'm sticking to it!

6. Use initiative to address work that you see needs completion.

If you see something that needs to be completed, DO IT! You should not have to wait for someone to tell you to do something in most circumstances. Obviously if you are not familiar with the work that needs to be completed (or the tools/equipment to accomplish the project), then it is best to ask someone how to accomplish your task. Don't wait for someone else to tell you to do something. Personally I like probationary firefighters that are "low maintenance." I shouldn't have to ask you to put up or take down the flags, to check out your equipment on the rig, to do your paperwork, to clean your assigned area of the station, etc. I should not have to micromanage you. Another good thing to do once your duties are completed is to ask your officer is there anything else that needs to be completed. That will show your motivation and drive to be a competent firefighter. Regardless of who caused you to do the work (C shift forgot to do the dishes) doesn't matter. What does matter is that you show the initiative to take the action now and get the job done.

7. Keep busy! Look for something to do. Study if you cannot find a job.

Regardless of what some people say, there is always something to do at the fire station, for the fire apparatus, or for the tools and equipment on the fire apparatus. Now by no means am I advocating busy work just to look busy. I remember having a Captain in a previous department I worked for ask me to clean the windows. I politely advised him that we had done the windows yesterday (since I had also worked at that station the day before). He said he didn't care and that we would do them today and every day if we had to, just to keep busy. His choice, but a ridiculous one in my opinion. I bet if we looked closely, we could have found other relevant things to do that needed to be done. If nothing else, we can always train on something, even if it includes just reading a book to refresh your memory on something relating to the fire service.

I appreciate it when firefighters ask me if there is anything else that needs to be done (after they have completed their assigned duties and responsibilities). Most of the time I don't have anything for them to do; regardless, it is the thought that counts. It shows me they care about their job and their duties.

When I was a student firefighter (a work experience program through Chabot College) with for the Oakland Fire Department, I used to work under an Engineer named Angelo Primas (who I believe is now a Captain) that would always like to go over things after dinner and during the down time of the day. He used to take me out to the apparatus and ask me what certain tools where for. He would spend many hours into the evening hours asking me questions about the tools and equipment. Where is this item carried? What is it used for? How would you use it? One regret I have is not asking him more questions, and not picking his brain more to get to some of that information; he was a wealth of information that obviously enjoyed and understood the importance of passing on his knowledge to the younger individuals that were just starting their careers in the fire service.