The Toughest Hallway

June 1, 2005

America is known as the land of opportunity. Each year, many young men and women work hard for a chance to become an emergency responder. Frequently, this conscious choice represents a “burning” desire to join a fire department and serve a particular community.

Incalculable time is spent away from friends and family in preparing for every phase of the process. For a career department, there is the written exam, the oral interview, the medical evaluation and normally a physical-agility component. For the volunteer department, there are interviews and peer reviews for membership. The fortunate few are finally accepted. The sacred badge is obtained. Everyone’s belief is that the Maltese cross or Star-of-Life will be worn proudly for many decades.

Then, all of a sudden, attitudes and behavior change. The new member becomes a liability, often getting into the “hot seat” because of a breach of the rules and regulations. Many times, it involves irresponsibility, unreliability or a substance-abuse issue. This can happen in the probationary phase or upon earning the “right to ride” on the apparatus.

Many educators and emergency responders, especially those working the employee assistance arena, believe that the current method of training is seriously failing both the individual and the community. Often, there is a misguided expectation of the job of a firefighter or paramedic. Identifying the source problem is easy; determining a solution is risky.

Repeatedly, training officers do not explain that the new firefighter will not battle blazes and make rescues each month. New paramedics will not use advanced life support skills every week. Daily life in the emergency services is not a scene from “Ladder 49” or “Backdraft.” Regularly, the newest members enter into an assignment and do not adjust to the culture because they lack the proper insight.

In the Philadelphia Fire Department, adjustments have been made to the very challenge of recruitment and retention. Both are structured processes. Seasoned veterans provide a realistic view before hiring and during recruit training. Time is spent on perception issues, recent trends, personal responsibilities and gaining an understanding of the role of the contemporary early responders. Deputy Chief Gary Appleby presents a classroom program on “Values.” This is a no-nonsense session that examines dedication to the department and service to the community. This class is the “backbone” of the 16-week cadet curriculum. It is specifically designed to connect all the lessons on emergency response and the environment of the fire station.

Currently, working in professional performance as the special investigation officer for the fire chief, I have observed valid reasons for new members becoming frustrated and becoming disciplinary challenges. Many are devastated by the increase in emergency medical calls and public education assignments and decrease in fire duty. Often, the new members are caught in a “bait-and-switch” deal crafted by fire service trainers. Changes in the fire service are authentic. Providing an honest view of the modern mission is essential. Awareness training must provide an objective view of duties and diversity. Task-level employees must be forewarned of the need to be available for “working weekends,” the performance of routine janitorial jobs and the requirement to be drug and alcohol free.

The position of firefighter-paramedic needs an in-depth orientation from all perspectives. Individuals and organizations will waste precious time, energy and money in a “losing situation” if station-maintenance duties, the importance of continuous training and need to be role models are not discussed. Increase the odds of a successful recruiting and retaining by providing a meaningful overview of the position. Learn that long-term productive members need a genuine indoctrination into the challenges of firehouse living and fireground activities.

Misunderstandings are costly. Assess the risk and don’t waste your limited resources until you expose “the toughest hallway.” For many, it will be the understanding that fighting fires is only one dimension of the responder’s role.

William Shouldis will present “Risk Assessment: Understanding the Responder’s Role” at Firehouse Expo 2005, July 26-31 in Baltimore.William Shouldis is a deputy chief, with more than 32 years of service, with the Philadelphia Fire Department. He is currently assigned to the Fire Chief’s Office working on special projects and investigations. In the past, he was a command officer for Division 2, director of the Training Academy and the department’s safety officer. Shouldis is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD, and has a master’s degree in public safety.

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