The Fire Scene: "Conforming": Teaching Our New Members to Excel

The word “conforming” often carries a negative or restrictive connotation. Many people think of conforming as a surrender of their own ideas or behaviors in favor of those of another person or group. When I use the word conforming relative to firefighters, I am talking about a positive and effective way of introducing new firefighters to the fire department and how we operate. Let’s look at the many ways firefighters conform to fit into and excel in the fire service.

When new firefighters enter the FDNY, for example, they are exposed to a host of rituals and traditions. Yes, all of the firehouses are part of the same department, but they are not all the same – a new firefighter assigned to an engine company in the Bronx may be “broken in” differently than a firefighter assigned to a ladder company in Brooklyn.

Off to a good start

It all starts at the fire academy, where the entire group is exposed to a new culture and work experience. New firefighters receive the mandated department training and the other information they need to get a solid start in the FDNY. But what happens when they are assigned to their new companies?

When a new class of probies has graduated from the fire academy, they are given assignments and are required to report to their new companies to “check in” and familiarize themselves with their new job. The companies are notified that new probies are coming and so the stage is set for the first of many days of conforming. When the probies arrive, they are usually grilled by the first few members they meet. These first, unofficial discussions usually include questions about where the probies worked before being hired by the FDNY and whether they are married, can play softball or cook or have any trade skills such as electrician, carpenter or mechanic.

After the preliminaries, the members usually tell the probies how fortunate they are to be assigned to their companies or they may ask if the probie has any family on the job. About this time, the members will usually inform the officer on duty that the new probie has arrived. The probie will be summoned to the office for the official greeting. The officer will ask more questions and then inform the probie about “the way we do things around here.” The process of conforming has begun.

It is policy in just about every company I worked in that firefighters in general, and probies in particular, arrive at the firehouse about an hour before their shift started. This is usually a departure from any previous job a probie had, but it is made clear that this is a requirement. Probies who arrive for work early have plenty of time to check their equipment and take care of any last-minute adjustments.

After being told by the officer when to report for the first shift, the probie is often sent back downstairs to learn more about the company and the firehouse routine from the on-duty firefighters. From this point on, a probie can spend three or four hours being shown around the firehouse. If four or five firefighters are working that day, each will have something of importance to tell the probie. The list of “do this” and “don’t do that” usually includes:

• Always be the first person in for the shift; if a senior member usually arrives early, you arrive earlier

• Always wear the proper uniform

• Check the apparatus every shift, and this means check every tool in every compartment, on every shift

• Become familiar with the broom and mop closet, because you will be the person using those tools every shift (other firefighters mop too, but not as much as the probie)

• Don’t tell us what you know, show us – everyone likes a sharp probie

• Learn about the company; know that we are the best and don’t forget it.

• You shouldn’t be seen sitting or otherwise relaxing, ever; if you are sitting, it should be at the housewatch desk where you can read department training manuals and learn how to receive and acknowledge alarms

• You should be the first to finish your meal so you can then be the first to jump into the sink to clean the pots and pans.

Probies may come to the department from previous jobs with an electric company, a bakery or even a circus, or from college, or this may be a probie’s first real job, but every one of them falls right in line. Yes, they conform! Probies conform to be part of the team and to be accepted by their new companies. Conforming is good, don’t you think? n