A Different Kind of Welcome

Dear Readers,

I previously wrote about my own rather unceremonious welcome to the fire service here. Years went by and eventually I found myself in the position of a company officer who occasionally had the opportunity to welcome probationary firefighters to my company. I did things a little differently though. Before I delve into how I did it, I need to share some background info on the way things worked. First of all, the 90s were still very much a part of the Wild West of firefighting. Ritual hazing of probationary firefighters was still commonplace. We operated in a much more cavalier manner than we would in later years. Anyway, we ran a three platoon system, so each truck had three crews assigned to it, one per shift. Companies had a captain, two lieutenants, three E/Os, and three to six firefighters. A captain was in charge on one of the shifts a lieutenant on the other two. Our helmets denoted our rank. This is common among all fire departments, but the color schemes aren’t always the same. In my department, firefighters and E/Os wore black helmets, lieutenants wore yellow, captains wore red, and chiefs wore white. All helmets had a leather shield which had your rank and company. Probationary firefighters’ shields were red, all others were black. Rank can very from department to department. Some do not have lieutenants at all, others may have varying ranks of firefighters (private, sergeant, etc). Captains were usually called “Cap” or “Cappie” while lieutenants were called “Loo” or “LT.” If the department had an class in the academy, we would find out around a week or so before graduation if we were going to be assigned a probie, though they would not find out their assignment until graduation. The top graduate got to pick their station and the others were allowed to fill out a “dream list” where they put their preferred assignment, but only the top graduate was guaranteed the spot. Everything else was subject to the needs of the department. That said, Station One was a choice assignment because of how busy we were, so it was not uncommon for probationary firefighters to be assigned to two or sometimes all three of our shifts. Also, all new firefighters started on an engine company. No exceptions. I realize other departments may do things differently, but we believed that the engine was the building block of the fire service and you had to master that before you could go over to a ladder or rescue.

First, I would be sure to drop by the graduation ceremony. I would already know who my probationary firefighter was and I would know what they looked like, having seen their academy file. After they were sworn in and opened their station assignments, I would go over and introduce myself. It wouldn’t be a long conversation, but I would set up a specific time for them to come by the station so that we could talk. This kept them from having to show up and hope that we were in quarters and not on a run. It made it a little less stressful for them as they would know what I looked like and know who to look for when they got there.

Second, they would not have to wander in and look for me. Knowing what time to expect them, I would have the senior firefighter in my company, usually the E/O, waiting downstairs to greet them when they arrived. Owing to the unexpected nature of the job, in the event that we might catch a run before the new person arrived, I would be sure to tell the guy on house watch to keep an eye out for them and tell them that if we were out when the probie arrived, to be sure and greet them and let them sit in the watch room until we got back. A fire station can be a rough place to work, and rougher on newcomers, but I did not want a person’s career to start with a negative impression. It is cliché, I know, but you don’t get a second chance at a first impression.

Upon being shown to the Engine Company office, where I sat behind the same desk where Captain Arceneaux once sat, I would make sure not be smoking when they got there! I would get up and answer the knock on the door myself and usher the person into the office and offer them a cup of coffee. I would accept the training file, but I always placed on the desk to be looked at later. And I would be sure to shake their hand and welcome them to my company.

To put them at ease, I would start off by asking them to tell me a little about themselves. Where were they from? Where did they go to school? What were their hobbies? What did they do for fun? All of this was a way to put them at ease. More often than not, they’d be very excited to be assigned to a company with a reputation for being very busy and very tough, but that could also be nerve wracking. Now I know that some old timers would say that I should’ve gone all Full Metal Jacket on them, in fact, some did say that, but that wasn’t my style. I was more of a lead by example type. Department tradition held that company officers were exempt from house duties. This meant that they did not have to wash the trucks, mop floors, do dishes, or scrub toilets. I could, if I wanted, have sat up in my office all day and watched TV in between runs. That’s not how I liked to operate. I did my share of house duties along with everyone else. Probies, if a company had one, were required to wash the engine at the beginning of every shift. If it was 35 degrees outside with a 25 mile an hour wind on top of it and my probie had to go out and wash the truck, I’d be working right alongside them. I never asked my people to do anything that I was not willing to do myself. I know that some might say that officers should be cold and a little aloof to gain respect, but I found that I gained respect by not being afraid to get my hands dirty. I’m not saying one is better than another. Everyone has to have their own style. This was mine.

I also believed in being up front, and so at the end of the meeting, I would give them a calendar for the year that had my drill schedule for the company, the drill schedule for the probie, and the dates that they would be test on the myriad of skills they would have to demonstrate by the end of the year. Of course, I would tell them that there would be surprise drills mixed in their too, so they needed to stay sharp. I assured them that they would have plenty of opportunities to practice skills before they were tested on them. They also received a written copy of the station specific rules. Finally, I would give them my closing monologue. I’ll include it, as best I can remember, below, but it did vary over time and so this isn’t exactly verbatim.

The city and the department obviously think there is something worthwhile about you, otherwise they wouldn’t have hired you and invested six months and a shitload of money training you. It is my job, and my company’s job, to make sure, one year from now, you can meet your training benchmarks and can go on to another company and be a valued member of the department. It is my job to help you achieve those goals. I will push you hard, but no harder than I push myself. I do not get a bonus check for each probie I bounce out of here. In fact, if you fail, that is as much a reflection on my abilities as an officer as it is on yours as a firefighter. You will drill ten times as hard as you did in the Academy, but we will be doing the drills with you. Engine One is a family, and we take care of one another. You’ll need a thick skin around the fire station because we can be rough on each other at times. As a probie, you’ll be the butt of some jokes, but if you feel something has crossed the line, let me know. If anyone from outside this house messes with you, they’ll answer to me. You are going to make mistakes. We know that. All I ask is that you don’t make the same mistake twice. If you are told do something and you don’t know how, do not try to bullshit your way through it. Tell me, or tell one of the crew and we will show you. If we are not out on a run, and you have no house duties to perform, you need to be going over every truck in this station with a fine toothcomb learning where everything is and how everything works. In the evenings during our down time, I expect your nose to be in your training manuals. Ask questions. I will never jump your shit for asking a question. I will jump your shit for acting like you know how to do something when you really don’t. There will be times when you hate me, hate Engine One. Hate Station One. Hate the department. Hate the whole fucking city. That’s fine. We all have days like that, myself included. But guess what? When they bell rings, we still have to go do our job. So learn to compartmentalize that shit.

This is a full house with an engine, ladder, and rescue. Learn as much about their jobs as you can. If the ladder is doing a drill and we aren’t, I expect you to jump in and be a part of their drill. After six months or so, if you are meeting your benchmarks and their officer approves, I’ll let you answer the occasional call with them. Once you learn the house watch system, volunteer to cover the desk for people. It’s a great way to learn about the city and the department since you’ll hear every call in the city dispatched and you’ll have a map with all the station locations. I’m not going to give you a long winded spiel about how when you put on that uniform, you represent all of us. I know you’ve heard all about that in the Academy. But what I will tell you is that the badge you wear represents a position of public trust. Your conduct on duty and off must be above reproach. Wherever you go, you are representing Engine One and me. Don’t let me or this company down.

Now here is the bad. There are only a few reasons why I would bounce you out of here, but these are my reasons. Remember, the department also has other reasons. First is repeated safety violations. It’s true that sometimes we have to push the envelope in this job, but that is my decision as a company officer. And even then, we have to keep our safety and more importantly, the safety of the public, in mind at all times. Second: failure to achieve training benchmarks. If you know you are weak at a particular skill, let us know so we can help you work on it. Third: Refusal to follow my orders. On scene, my orders are to be obeyed instantly and without question. Rest assured, I will never order you to do something illegal, immoral, or unethical. If we are at a scene and you are engaged in a task that I have ordered you to and you are approached by an officer from a different company and or a chief from a different battalion who gives you a different order, politely refuse. If they persist, respectfully refuse and tell them to take it up with me. Don’t worry about getting into trouble. I’ll take any heat that comes down, not you. Fourth: not treating the public with the respect they deserve. This is a big one for me. Your first call could be a cardiac arrest. I don’t give a fuck if it is a crack addicted prostitute or the mayor’s wife, you WILL treat everyone with courtesy and respect. You will respond to shootings at this station. I don’t care if the victim is a gang member who has shot plenty of other people in the past, it is not our place to judge and you WILL treat that patient like they are you own brother. If I observe that you are treating people differently based on their race, religion, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, you are finished in this department. I’m sure you’ve heard this station called a “ghetto station.” Around here, we take pride in that fact. Over a third of the families in this district live in poverty. The rest don’t have it much better than that. The majority of people in this district are African-American. They trust us because they know that, no matter what, if they have an emergency, we’ll come running. And we will not discriminate. They deserve no less than our very best. So don’t screw that up for us, or you’ll be gone. Understand? If someone from another station or another department calls you a “ghetto fireman,” just remember this, they all WISH they could catch as many runs as we do. So own that shit and wear that term with pride.    

At this point, my monologue was over. I’d stand up, shake hands with them again, and welcome them to Engine One. Then, I’d call my E/O and firefighter up to the office over the intercom and make the introductions. I would allow a bit of small talk, and then I would personally give the probie a tour of the upstairs instead of delegating it. Once we were finished, I would then ask my E/O and firefighter to show the probie around the downstairs area and the truck.

Some might say that the way I was introduced to the fire service was the right way and my method was too soft. All I will say to that is that we all have our own ways of doing things. We consistently had the fastest turnout time of any company in the city, we had the fastest average on scene arrival time, and we were regarded as a company that knew how to get the job done. That’s not because of me as an officer, since they had the same reputation when I was a probie assigned to that company, but it is something that I maintained while I was in the officer’s seat.

Oh, and I liked donuts. I also did not adhere to the old standard that probies could not use the poles until their first fire. During their first shift, they would be given instruction on the proper and safe way to use them, and then they were free to do so.  The bottom line is that the pole is the fastest way to get from the second floor to the first and I was not going to sacrifice my response times just to make sure a probie “knows their place.”   

Until next time, friends, take care of yourselves, and each other.

L.H.

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