Most people that know me well will tell you that the one thing that almost destroyed my firefighting career was the Fire Station Bullies. If you come along to my book signing next week at the Manila International Book Fair I can tell you more about it. Meanwhile, here is a recent article by Adam J. Hansen that I can resonate with very well:
Looking back on childhood memories, most can recall our parents telling us “if you work hard enough, you can do anything you want.” Our family’s encouragement is what sets up the fundamental understanding of “if you want something bad enough, all it takes is courage and determination and your possibilities are endless.” This premise continues as we proceed throughout our lives; teachers keeping us on the right path, coaches pushing to reveal our full potential, and friends encouraging us to excel. The best payment anyone of these life mentors can receive is to get word of a protégé going out into the world and becoming successful. Knowing that you impacted someone’s life and were a part of their success is truly an awesome feeling.
If these support mechanisms exist throughout all chapters of our lives, then why do they all too often seem to abandon us at the firehouse? Most rookies get hired with the goal of graduating the academy and going on to their respective departments to learn, succeed and excel. A probie envisions the firehouse as being a warehouse of unlimited resources/access to experience and help to achieve their goals. Ideas of being surrounded by like-minded individuals who are looking to advance their careers and becoming the best versions of themselves is how probies imagine their new universe will look. If these ideas and hopes exist when first coming on the job, why does the firehouse so often seem to offer the exact opposite reality for new firefighters coming through the door?
The reality often looks more like this: if the probie takes even one bit of initiative, i.e., clean the tools, check/inspect seldom used equipment, read an IFSTA Book, the response is negative and destructive. You hear things like “Look at this whacker”, “What, you think you’re going places on this job”, “I don’t know why you bother with that”, and ”This ain’t the big city kid”. It is these firehouse bullies who are responsible for destroying the culture of the fire service.
Simply stated, probies walk through the door on their first day with one thing on their mind – to become a good firefighter. A newbie first walking into the firehouse is the most opportune time to take advantage of the occasion to teach, demonstrate good behaviors and impart our seasoned wisdom to the next generation. The first year is when they will formulate their career path and mold into the kind of firefighter they are going to be. Good and bad habits will be picked up, first impressions made, proper decorum learned, and respect taught. When a probie walks through the doors of the firehouse we, as mentors, have a clean slate upon which to teach and create. We have an opportunity to model them into the type of firefighter we want working by our side for the next 20+ years. If this all holds true, then why in Hell do we go out of our way to destroy this great opportunity?
Firehouse bullies don’t want to see probies become great firefighters or go on to become the future of positive change within our service. Their goal is to stunt and destroy the drive that exists within them. The young impressionable kid who looks up to the 20+ year veteran is going to be influenced. For good or bad, they will listen to what the veteran says and those words will have an immeasurable impact on the future direction of their career. More often than not the words they are hearing though are these: “Oh, what kind of stupid training do we have today?”, “Look at the glory boys! Who are they trying to impress?”, “Only a fool would take classes that aren’t required.”, ”You spent $100 dollars on a flashlight?! What an idiot!”, “Your just an ass in the seat and nothing more.”, and ”Don’t check that piece of equipment. We’ll never use it.” It doesn’t matter for what department you work; we all know or have met these firehouse bullies who do nothing but destroy the potential future leaders of our fire service. It’s easy to say “You are your own person. If you want to be eager and excited about the job, just don’t listen to them.” But, it’s easier said than done. I’m 35 years old with a beautiful wife, two beautiful boys, and a life I wouldn’t trade with anybody. I know what I want out of this life and no matter who tries to bring me down or mock my endeavors it’s not going to have an impact on what I do. That being said, it’s becoming much more difficult for a young kid just out of the academy to dismiss negative people they may be surrounded by at the firehouse. Young probies wanting to practice donning and doffing their turnout gear, read a firefighting book, take an extra class, or talk about a near miss they read about may think twice before speaking up and following their ambitions. They may say to themselves “I don’t want these guys to make fun of me. Maybe I’ll just sit back and go with the flow. I just want to be one of the guys.” If this happens, by the end of their first year and the time they get off of probation, the opportunity to turn our brothers/sisters into exceptional firefighters has come and gone. Not only have we missed a perfect opportunity, but we have set them up for failure by taking away all of the drive and ambition that once existed.
It’s these same firehouse bullies who suck at the job. They are the ones who sit around bashing training exercises and then run around like a chicken with it’s head cut off when the situation gets real. He/she is the one who talks a big game and makes fun of enthusiasm, but, when push comes to shove, is found standing in the background because they have no clue how to perform the task at hand. If you’re a newly graduated firefighter or just entering the fire service I hope you are blessed with being surrounded by real firefighters who love the job and encourage you to become the best version of yourself. If you aren’t fortunate enough to be surrounded by a solid support network, but instead are surrounded by naysayers and people looking to undermine your passion, don’t get discouraged. Firehouse bullies will come and go, but if you stay true to yourself and disregard the insulant, I promise this job will give back what you put into it tenfold. Be the firefighter you want to be and don’t apologize for anything.