First to Wake up, Last to go to Sleep: Life as a Probationary Firefighter

Jan. 29, 2007
The probationary period helps determine if an individual is a "good fit" for the fire department.

Life as a probationary firefighter is not easy; it is not supposed to be. It is supposed to be a period where you are put through the ringer and challenged to be the best you can be. It is a period typically lasting 12 months to 18 months, and maybe up to 24 or 36 months, depending on the department. The probationary period may begin on the first day of the recruit academy, or the first day after graduating from the recruit academy. It is a time when you are under the microscope and can be terminated for any reason whatsoever.

Should this scare you away from being a probationary firefighter? Of course it should not. Most, if not all current firefighters, company officers and chief officers have had to complete a probationary period when they were hired, and many of them when they were promoted. A probationary period is a necessary period to determine if an individual is a "good fit for the department." What does a good fit mean? It can mean a number of things, but it primarily means that you get along well with others, that you are at least a minimum standard firefighter, capable of performing the job and being a safe beginner.

Contrary to what some purists or traditionalists might believe, just because someone is on probation, it doesn't mean we have the right to haze them, intimidate them, berate them, harass them, treat them as second-class citizens or yell at them. It does mean we have the obligation to challenge them to be the best they can be, to evaluate them on the knowledge, skills and abilities appropriate for their position, and to expect them to do their share and maybe a little more. In most departments, the probationary firefighter is a functioning member of the crew. Meaning, if the department staffs three personnel on an engine company, that probationary firefighter is one of the three members. One day out of the academy, and they are expected to be a functioning member of the crew. Pretty scary, and asking a lot, don't you think?

Because the probationary firefighter is expected to be a functioning member of the crew, the department is obligated to ensure they are able to be a safe beginner. When the training division "blesses" someone and says they successfully completed the recruit academy and is ready to serve on the line as a safe beginner, it is now up to the line personnel to evaluate the probationary personnel to determine whether they have retained the information taught within the academy and whether they will be a good fit for the department, at the end of the probationary period.

A probationary firefighter should be the first one up every morning, and the last one to bed, with a few exceptions. I have known some firefighters that stay up all night long, or like to go to bed at one or two in the morning. When I work at a fire station, I do not typically hit the bed until after midnight, due to the workload and projects I am involved in. I am not complaining; I enjoy what I do and what I am involved in. It is probably unrealistic to expect a probationary firefighter to wait until I go to bed at one or two in the morning before they hit the sack, and then have to get up at five thirty in the morning to start off the daily routine. However, they should be up before I am, and already have things ready for us to go off duty and the oncoming crew to start work.

I'm not advocating probationary firefighters to be the last to bed and the first to get up just because they are on probation. I don't really believe in making someone do things, "just because they are on probation." About the only things I do feel a probationary firefighter should do (besides be the last to bed and the first to rise), are to not only do their share, but also help the others out with their work and to get tested and evaluated on a more frequent basis (as opposed to someone off probation who has proven themselves by completing probation and through their everyday actions).

When someone successfully completes probation, their attitude and behavior should not drastically change, now that they are off probation. At least we hope it doesn't. The last thing any fire department wants to do is see someone do a complete change and not be the person they were advertising themselves to be.

As the last to go to bed, here are some suggestions you can be doing in the evening, prior to going to bed:

  1. Study, study, study. If you run out of things to study and learn, you're not looking at the big picture or trying hard enough.
  2. Ensure all the unnecessary lights are turned off (make sure you leave any appropriate night lights on).
  3. Ensure all unnecessary appliances and electronic devices (television, radio, stove, etc.) are turned off.
  4. Ensure the station is secured; doors are locked, windows closed.
  5. Ensure the flag has been taken down (should have been done at sundown or a time deemed appropriate by the department) and that it has been properly folded and stored (not draped over the couch or table).
  6. Ensure the apparatus are all clean and wiped down (a tradition in some departments).
  7. Ensure your work/study area is cleaned up and ready for the next crew.
  8. Ensure the kitchen is clean and the dishwasher has been set on time delay or the dishes have already been cleaned and put away.
  9. Most importantly, before you go to sleep, make sure you have touched base with your officer and have asked them "is there anything else I need to take care of or can help out with, before going to sleep?"

As the first person to rise in the morning, here are some suggestions to keep you busy and start out the day for the off going and on coming crews:

  1. Make coffee. Key point: realize different shifts may like different flavors or brands of coffee. Don't assume anything; on your first day, ask the crew what type(s) of coffee they like, do they even drink coffee, how many people like to drink coffee (so you don't make too much or too little), and if there are any special requests. Do this for your shift and the oncoming shifts.
  2. Bring in the newspaper. Your job is not to read it (you can read it on your off time), and place it on the kitchen table or gathering point.
  3. Ensure the dishwasher is empty, and the kitchen is clean and presentable.
  4. Ensure the apparatus are all wiped down, that the windows are cleaned, that the tires are shiny, that the rims/aluminum is shiny, and that any tools/equipment used the previous day is clean, functioning and presentable in ready to use condition.
  5. Put up the flags, unless it is raining.
  6. Police the station to ensure that anything you or your crew might have taken out has been put back. Items can include books, manuals, tools, equipment, cleaning supplies, etc.
  7. Get ready to make contact with your relief and pass on any relevant information relating to what equipment you might have used the previous day, what types of responses you went on, and any other pertinent information you can think of providing them, that is relevant and not going to put them to sleep.
  8. Most importantly, before you leave to go off duty, make sure you touch base with your officer and ask them "is there anything else I need to do before I go off duty?" Besides making sure you have done everything expected of you, it also shows initiative and that you care.

Being a probationary firefighter is not easy; it is hard work and what one department requires of its probationary firefighters may significantly vary from what another department requires or expects. Realize customs, traditions, and expectations can change not only from department to department, but within each department and within each station and/or company officer.

It is up to you to learn from the others that have walked in the shoes before you as probationary firefighters, as well as the senior firefighters and your officer. Be a sponge, and learn how things should go, as opposed to having to wait for others to tell you what to do or what needs to be done. If you're waiting for that to happen, you're too late; you've missed the boat and you are going to get a bad reputation.

Steve Prziborowski, a contriburing editor, is a 15-year veteran and student of the fire service and is currently serving as an Acting Battalion Chief for the Santa Clara County (CA) Fire Department. Other positions Steve has held at the Santa Clara County Fire Department include: Firefighter/Engineer, Firefighter/Engineer-Paramedic, Fire Captain, Training Captain, and Operations Captain. Additional responsibilities include serving or having served as an on-call Safety Officer, an on-call Public Information Officer, and an on-call Fire Investigator. Steve also provides a free email mailing list and publishes a free monthly newsletter (The Chabot College Fire & EMS News); both are geared toward better preparing the future firefighter for a career in the fire service and the current firefighter for promotion, and are available on his website at

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!