If you are reading this, then I can assume you love the idea of being a firefighter. I can imagine that you’re not just here to wear the t-shirt and you genuinely want to help others because that is indeed what being a firefighter is all about. You joined the fire department because you want to help others and you feel that you can make a difference in your community. If you joined the fire department because you want to get free drinks at the local bar, you are not a real firefighter and please turn in your bunker gear.
Being a new guy at the firehouse is hard. If you are from a family of firefighters, then you have a decent shot of fitting into the firehouse culture quickly for the most part. This article is for the new firefighter who didn’t grow up in a firehouse. I am lucky as that I am a fourth generation firefighter and grew up in a firehouse with my father, uncle, grandfather, and cousins who are either career firefighters or volunteers. I went to my first fire when I was about six and helped my dad make up the hydrant for the second due engine to a nursing home fire, I grew up having great role models in the firehouse and I am where I am because of them. I am writing this article in hopes that some of my experiences will help the new guys and gals getting on the line this year.
Your first year at the firehouse is the most critical year you will have in the fire service. This is when you get to show everyone what type of person you are. Your first year you’re not solely being judged by your fellow firefighters on ladder and hydrants skills but judged on your character. Firefighters want to experience who you are first before they will help teach you what they know. Firefighters want to know that they are not going to waste their time if they show you how to flake the hand lines and throw ladders. If a firefighter thinks you are not worth their time, then most of the time they won’t go the extra mile to help you.
So how can you show that you want to be a firefighter? First of all, you need to introduce yourself and make yourself visible to the firefighters. This does not mean tell the group a war story of an EMS call you went on or tell them about your uncle who works for a fire department on the other side of the country, the guys just won’t care and will find you annoying. When you meet someone new at the firehouse shake their hand and introduce yourself, ask them if there is anything you can do to help them in the truck bay or let them know you are going make a fresh pot of coffee for the group. If you don’t know how to make coffee, google it and figure it out! Even if you don’t drink coffee, learn how to make it because this is a sacred act in the firehouse and can label you as a lazy guy if you don’t make coffee for the group. So shake their hand, say hello and ask them if they want you to make a fresh pot! The key here is to show the group that you are respectful and willing to work.
Ever heard the expression “two ears and one mouth, listen twice and much as you speak”? This phrase should be a key rule for your first years as a firefighter. I do not mean never say anything and don’t ask questions. Firefighters that have been around the fire service don’t want to hear your stories nor do they want to listen to your ideas about changing up the hydrant bag on the rig. You have to prove yourself first that you understand how the fire service works and that you can bring something to the table before anyone wants your input. You should, however, ask as many questions as you can. The more you ask, the more you will learn from the group. The group will then see that you want to learn and then they are more inclined to want to help you because they know you are paying attention and they are not wasting their time with you. Trust me, being a know it all can hurt your image within the firehouse, and it can take years to fix it.
Make yourself seen at the firehouse. Being at the firehouse and being around the other firefighters is the only way to learn. If you are a recently hired firefighter, then you will be at the firehouse often, but you should be out in the truck bay looking over the equipment instead of sitting in your bunk room playing on your phone. I have even heard of departments that don’t let the probie (probationary firefighter) into the TV room at all his or her first year. Again the key thing here is to show the group that you are not lazy and that you are there to work and learn. When the phone rings always be the first one to spring up and answer it! You will not gain anything by being a mouch (half man, half couch). You need to be up and continuously being busy around the firehouse. Have a day off from work and don’t have much to do? Go up to your volunteer firehouse and do some ladder drills or workout in the gym and say hi to the other firefighters. The more the other firefighters see you do, the more they will want to work with you on the fire scene.
The fire scene. The scenario is that you are still incredibly new and doing some ride time on the engine for the night with the group, and a report of a house fire comes in. This is your time to shine and show the group that you are God’s gift to firefighting, wrong! This is the time to get on the truck, buckle your seat belt and listen! You need to figure out who you trust on that fire truck and stay with them the whole time till the fire is out and you are back at the firehouse. If you are unaware of the term freelancing, then I suggest you learn it now. Freelancing is when you go off on your own at a fire scene and start doing things without being told to do them and not letting anyone know that you are doing them. A house fire is a giant game of chess, and you are a simple pawn at this time and need to know your role. Things happen for a reason at a fire, and you need to know what you are doing and why you are doing it to understand the outcome your action may have on the overall picture. Do what you are told and if you don’t think you can do it or do not understand then say something because this is not the time to try and figure out something new as someone’s life can depend on it. Take it all in and when the fire is out ask the other firefighters questions about why they did something or didn’t do something.
Meal time at the firehouse is a special time of the day. Firefighters can spend days planning out the next meal with the group and can have multiple conversations about what to order or to make. Your the new guy and your opinion comes last on this topic for most groups. You don’t know where the best pizza comes from yet nor do you know how to cook the best steak yet. You may very well be the best cook in the group or be best friends with the pizza shop owner, but that doesn’t matter yet. You can for sure offer to makes steaks for the guys and offer to call in for a large pizza and wings but if the group doesn’t want you to don’t try and change their minds. It will take time for the group to want to know your opinion when it comes to the firehouse meal. Every firehouse is different but most experiences I have had you will be told what the menu is and you will have to like it. When the food is done you need to be the last person to go to the counter and put that tasty steak onto your plate! You do however need to be the first person to get up and start cleaning the dishes, again this is a sign of respect to your fellow firefighters. Don’t half ass clean the kitchen either, really take your time and clean up thoroughly. If the garbage is full, then take it out and put a spare bag in the bottom of the barrel (for the next guy who takes out the trash to use) and then another bag around the brim of the garbage bin. Take pride in that you did the best you could do to make the kitchen shine and then go meet up with the group. Wait, did you bring desert!! Always, Always, Always bring a dessert for the group. If you don’t bring a dessert you will never hear the end of it, trust me on this one.
These are just some of the things that I have experiences that I feel are critical topics for new firefighters to know. There are many other things about the fire service that you will learn your first years, and honestly not knowing what will happen at the firehouse is why we do what we do, we love the excitement. The most important thing I can tell you about being a new firefighter is to have fun. Laugh at the jokes you hear from the group and appreciate that you are where you are. Smile when you walk through the firehouse doors and realize that there are so many people out there that wish they could be a firefighter but can’t for reasons that they only know. You get to help people for a living, and that is such a great feeling!
Matthew Aman is 10 year member of the fire service. Matt is a career and volunteer firefighter in western New York. Matt has been with Leatherhead Mafia since 2017 and is also a founding member of Thinline Fitness.