It’s been 25 years now and you indeed realize that the job is more than a shiny helmet, sweat and uniforms. Over that 25 years you have realized, lived, and experienced so much more. As a matter of fact, you realized that there is this big, heavy and sometimes cumbersome baton of tradition, craftsmanship, experience, heartbreak and joy that you, like so many before you, now have to pass on to this new member; this mirrored image of what you were 25 years ago. Can you do it? Do you have what it takes? Do you realize your responsibility? Are you up to the task?
Perhaps, before you check off the boxes of your rookie’s performance appraisal and apply appropriate proficiency scales; you should take that same form and check off yourself. Evaluate yourself and give yourself a proficiency score. Be familiar with yourself. Know your capabilities and acknowledge your short-comings because believe me...your deficiencies will become quite apparent to your protégé. Not only will your charge see you for what you are or are not; you’ll have to deal with yourself throughout the process. If you’re not prepared then you and your rookie are going to have a rough probationary year!
Being a firefighter is truly an artful craft. There are so many aspects of this job that require a craftsman-like approach to task and personal accomplishment. I almost have to liken it to a comparison of a shop teacher I had back when pterodactyls ruled the world! I had gotten to the point in shop class that I didn’t want to just make carved candy bowls and bird houses anymore. I truly wanted to make something “masterful.” I wanted to be a woodworker by the end of the year.
I told my teacher that I wanted to make a fine cabinet of some sort; something that I truly could be proud of. My teacher’s brow suddenly became quite furrowed with a look of worry. When I showed him my plans...he realized that he hadn’t cut a dovetail joint in years. He forgot how to cut blind or concealed butt joints and as far as the inlay work that I wanted to include; I could see that this project was just about to put him over the edge. He had forgotten so much of what I wanted to do on my project. I was quite impressed, however, when he admitted that he had forgotten so much, but that he was more than willing to hit the design and procedure books with me together. He then promised that when the project was complete we both would be truly proud of what we had made.
Officers, this is the kind of approach we all need to take with our new personnel. We are hiring young energetic people. They’ve been through the academy and learned how to make “birdhouses and candy bowls.” They want to expand their craftsmanship. These folks want to make their mark in their career (as we all did). And you all know, as I do, that this job is much more than candy bowls and bird houses. Sometimes it is a matter of life and death: yours, mine and theirs, and more importantly the folks who call us.
Impress upon your rookie that you indeed don’t know it all...that there is indeed a portion of your craft that you have forgotten. Assure him or her that you will not let them down in their endeavor to be good firefighters. Impress upon yourself, however, that you will take every step necessary including getting back into the “Essentials” book for remedial training. You’ll re-master those skills that have seemed to go by the wayside. Re-visit the “design and procedure book” and dig deeper than merely the “candy bowl and birdhouse” sections. You might even find that the academic visit will bring back all those tricks of the trade that your very first salty Captain taught you so long ago.
Be the encouraging leader that you know you are capable of. You wouldn’t have been given the task of “rearing” the young if you weren’t capable of it. Push yourself to go farther than just the drills that training division gave you for the rookie’s first, second or third phase practical evolutions. Teach them everything you can about this job and more. Instill in them a confident humbleness that is the hallmark of who and what we are. Teach them that the job is indeed bigger than any one of us. Remind them every day that one day they’ll be running the anchor leg of this proud race called firefighting and that your job now is to make sure that the baton is passed cleanly, safely, with all the tradition and pride of those that went before us.
SKIP WILSON has been in the fire service for 35 years, the last 24 with the Littleton, CO, Fire Rescue. He's currently a shift safety and training officer and also the training officer for Jefferson-Como Fire Rescue in Colorado. He holds a BS in emergency medical administration.