Generation New Firefighter – The 2/20 Syndrome

June 1, 2015
Do you know the firefighter who has been on the job for two years and acts like they have been on the job for 20? I call that the 2/20 firefighter, who has “been there, done that, and got the T-shirt.”

Every department has at least one person, if not more, that has been on the job for two years and they think and act like they have been on the job for 20 years (thus, 2/20). Take it a step further; many departments also have 3/30 personnel, 4/40 personnel, etc. It is not too difficult to spot those folks; they are the ones that think they know it all and their way is the best way. One of the firefighters I work with coined that phrase after seeing an inordinate number of firefighters fresh off of probation walking around the fire station like they were veteran firefighters that had “been there, done that, and got the t-shirt.”

I guess we can blame part of this problem on the current generations of firefighters, but it doesn’t mean we have to tolerate or accept a 2/20 or 3/30 person. Nothing is farther from the truth. We need to acknowledge those folks and get them back on the right track.

Characteristics of a 2/20 (or 3/30, 4/40, etc.) firefighter:

  1. Has been on the job for two years and think they have been there for at least 20 years.
  2. Has “been there, done that.”
  3. Does not show respect for the department, the rich traditions of the fire service, the veterans (of any rank), or their company officers and chief officers.
  4. Thinks they know it all, and don’t need any further training or education.
  5. Does not understand the concept of seniority and rank, or chain of command.
  6. Is not open-minded when it comes to new ideas.
  7. Does not know when to speak and when to shut up.
  8. Thinks they are at the top of their game, and that the veteran firefighters are out of touch or uneducated.

What can you do to not let yourself fall into this trap? Here is my 11-step program to not let yourself become a 2/20 firefighter:

  1. Treat everyone fairly and with respect.
  2. Respect rank and seniority.
  3. Be open to different ideas or methods.
  4. Understand these definitions and make a conscious effort to never let yourself fall into this trap.
  5. Continuously update your knowledge, skills and abilities, and realize that you are never fully trained.
  6. Strive to always be the best you can be, without stepping on others to get ahead.
  7. Remember that you work for the external customer (the public) and you have to get along and function as a team with your internal customers (your co-workers).
  8. Know when to talk, and when to listen. Especially when you are new (or freshly off probation), if you find yourself talking more than you are listening, something is probably wrong.
  9. Do not do what is right for yourself, do what is right for your customers and your department. We exist for our external customers; without them, we would not be here or be needed.
  10. Strive to learn at least one new thing each day (on duty and off duty). Never stop learning.
  11. Talk to your supervisors and co-workers to find out their perception of your performance. Many people won’t tell you what they think on their own. However, if you approach them for honest, constructive criticism, you may receive it. Be careful what you ask for, you better be prepared to hear some things you may not like.

What can you do if you find yourself having to work with folks suffering from the 2/20 syndrome?

  1. Understand that this is a disease, just like alcoholism. It can be treated, but it won’t be easy. Advise them of the 11-step program listed above.
  2. If you are a supervisor, advise the individual of your observations and perceptions. Let them know of your intentions; you are there to help them be the best firefighter they can be (not the best firefighter they may think they are). I remember having one probationary firefighter say something that made me think of the 2/20 term. They had been on the job for only 18 months (1.5 years). I was in the process of explaining why we do what we do and why their opinion was not in line with the department’s mission statement or my mission statement. They still didn’t seem to get it and were almost arguing. I made the comment, “do you really want to get the nickname 1.5/15? (modeled after 2/20) We can start that now if you would like." That shut the person up and they actually then apologized for their actions. The key point is that they were obviously not aware of their actions and how they were being perceived. Since that point, I have never had a problem with that employee and have heard nothing but positive feedback from others about that person. We all need a reality check sometimes.
  3. Advise them of the 2/20 syndrome, they may not have ever heard of it or even realize what they are doing or how others are perceiving them.
  4. Enlist the assistance of your crew and co-workers. Sometimes peer pressure works great to change behavior.
  5. Document, document, document.
  6. If your department does annual performance evaluations, make sure something objective is properly documented. Just because someone is perceived as a 2/20, it doesn’t mean they need to be terminated, suspended, or demoted (or even suffer lesser forms of progressive discipline). However, not documenting any observations relating to attitude, respect, ability to get along with others, ability to work as a team, etc., can lead to problems in the future.
  7. If all else fails, bid out of the station.

Do not let yourself or your personnel fall into the trap of being labeled as a 2/20 firefighter. Instead, strive for 3/3, 10/10, 20/20, etc. Even worse, you don’t want to be a 10/5: 10 years on the job and you perform and act like you have only been here for five years. That is even worse than being a 5/10 in my book.

Resist the urge to try and show off orally your strengths, your talents, your knowledge, your skills, your abilities, etc. Instead, let your actions and performance speak for themselves. Actions speak louder than words, and if you are talking you are not listening. Two powerful phrases to live by during your fire service career.

About the Author

Steve Prziborowski

Steve Prziborowski, who is a Firehouse contributing editor, has more than 31 years of fire service experience. He recently retired as a deputy chief of training for the Santa Clara County Fire Department in Los Gatos, CA. Prziborowski is an instructor for the Chabot College Fire Technology Program and for the National Fire Academy. He received the Ronny Jack Coleman Leadership Legacy Award from the Center for Public Safety Excellence in 2020 and was named California Fire Instructor of the Year in 2008. Prziborowski is a regular presenter at fire service events, having presented in 40 states and Canada. He has authored and contributed to numerous articles, podcasts, videos, blogs and books and published four career development books: "Reach for the Firefighter Badge," "The Future Firefighter's Preparation Guide," "How to Excel at Fire Department Promotional Exams" and "101 Tips to Ace Your Promotional Exam." Prziborowski's fifth book on "Courage Under Fire Leadership" will be released in the near future.

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