Your Reputation Starts on Day One

April 2, 2007
The key is that you need to learn from the good and not so good of other firefighters.

You have spent the last few years doing everything in your power to become a firefighter. You have taken countless firefighter examinations with numerous fire departments, and have probably even taken an examination with the same department more than once. It has not been easy, but you have obtained the job of your dreams, a career in the fire service!

However, the work does not stop here. You will probably have to go through a rigorous recruit academy, and participate in a probationary process where you may be terminated for not meeting the terms of your probation (any reason, whatsoever). Even when you finish probation, the work does not stop there. You will be participating in training (on-the-job, in the classroom, on the drill ground, etc.) virtually every day you are on duty, until you retire. Sounds easy, doesn't it? If it were easy being a firefighter, everyone would be doing it.

Successfully completing probation and getting along well with your co-workers depends on a number of factors, including your reputation (good or bad) and how well you live up to it. You can be proficient skill wise, but if you have a have a bad reputation, you may not find yourself completing the recruit academy or probationary period. Or you may pass probation, but you are stuck with a specific reputation (good or bad) for the rest of your career, and long after you have retired.

Talk with firefighters at every fire department nationwide, and ask them about some of reputations people have been labeled with (good and bad), and you will hear some very similar comments:

  • He/she is a hard worker.
  • He/she is a slacker.
  • He/she is lazy.
  • He/she is dependable.
  • He/she is not dependable.
  • He/she doesn't get along well with others.
  • He/she is a nice person.
  • He/she talks too much.
  • He/she is quiet.
  • He/she is a party animal (off duty of course).
  • He/she is dialed in.
  • He/she is a great firefighter.
  • He/she is worthless.
  • He/she is cheap.
  • He/she is someone I want on my crew.
  • He/she is someone I do not want on my crew.
  • He/she is a jerk.
  • He/she is self-centered.
  • He/she is not a good person to trade with.
  • He/she is a great person to trade with.
  • He/she has great mechanical ability.
  • He/she is very smart.
  • He/she is mature.
  • He/she is immature.
  • He/she is an expert at _____________.
  • He/she is a neat freak.
  • He/she is a slob.
  • He/she does not live up to their word.
  • He/she follows through on their word.
  • He/she talks the talk, but doesn't walk the walk.
  • He/she is born leader.
  • He/she is a follower.

The key is that you need to learn from the good and not so good of others. Realize that most reputations do not get created after someone has been on the job for ten years. Your reputation starts on day one, and personally I do not think day one means the first day of the recruit academy. I think day one is before you have even filled out the job application to apply for the position. Day one should be when you first made contact with someone on that fire department you aspire to work at.

Before you even submit an application to participate in the testing process, I hope you have taken the time to visit the fire stations to talk with the firefighters to see what makes their department different from the others, why they like working at their department, what they think their department is looking for in candidates, and what they think a successful candidate will be doing to land a position at their department.

When you participate in the hiring process, including visiting fire stations, I hope you realize you are being evaluated, whether you think you are or not. When you are visiting fire stations, you never know who is testing you, who will be on your oral board (or some other phase of the hiring process), or who is taking notes on the candidates that stop by. What does this mean for you, the future firefighter? Realizing your reputation starts at day one, I would encourage you to do the following:

  1. Remember that you are always getting evaluated, and being watched during ALL phases of the hiring process, even an "informal" station visit.
  2. Don't discount anyone. You never know where you will see that person again, what influence that person may have on the hiring process, or who that person may be. It is not uncommon for fire department senior staff to not wear department uniforms, and just wear business or casual clothing. That person you are talking with (or shining off because they don't have a uniform) may be the fire chief or the assistant fire chief. I know I've mistaken some fire chiefs for civilians. Had I just treated everybody I contacted with respect, dignity, and courtesy, and realized that I was always being watched and evaluated, I may have not done stupid things or said things I should not have.
  3. Remember that you are going to get a reputation no matter what. Knowing that, make sure it is going to be a good reputation, since you will be labeled with that reputation and stuck with it. If I'm going to be stuck with something for the rest of my life, I want to make sure it is something good!
  4. Always dress the part; or dress for success as they say. While it may be cool to wear shorts, tank tops, flip flops, etc. on your days off when you are hanging out with your friends or spending time on the beach, remember that attire may not be the best when you are visiting fire stations or participating in any event within the firefighter hiring process. I'm not saying you need to wear a suit to the written test or when you are visiting a fire station (make sure you wear a suit to the oral interview, the chief's interview, the background investigation meeting, etc.), but you need to be standing out and dressing for success.
  5. Always watch what you say, to everyone you come in contact. This means you probably should be using proper English language, proper grammar, no slang or curse words, and nothing you will regret later on or be ashamed of having someone repeat. When you are talking to fire service personnel, do not talk negatively of anyone (including your current employer, another fire department or firefighter, another gender or ethnic group) or tell jokes you may think are funny. Most jokes are going to offend some group, so it probably isn't worth telling (or even laughing at if you are hearing it from someone else).

As you know, reputations can be either good or bad. Your goal is to not only remember that your reputation starts on day one, but that you want to have a great reputation because it will most likely last with you and be associated with your name long after you are retired.

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 is also an instructor within the Chabot College (Hayward, CA) Fire Technology Program, where he has been instructing fire technology and EMS classes for 14 years. Four and a half years were also spent as the Fire Technology Coordinator, and seven years were also spent as the EMT Program Director and Primary Instructor.

Steve is an Executive Board member for the Northern California Training Officers Association, currently serving as the President.

Steve is a state-certified Chief Officer, Fire Officer, Master Instructor, and Hazardous Materials Technician, as well as a state-licensed paramedic. Steve has an associate degree in fire technology, a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, and a master's degree in emergency services administration. He is currently a student in the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy.

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

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