Being the New Guy – A Rookie’s Perspective

10 mins read

I picked up the phone, half way through my weekly snack run on a Friday evening. My wife and son were patiently waiting for me to grab a couple bags of Skinny Pop and get home in time for a bedtime snack. When Lori from Fire Admin asked if I wanted to accept the gig with my local volunteer fire department, I was kind of dumbstruck. Of course, I accepted enthusiastically, but one thing flashed instantly into my head; what’s it like being the new guy?

In recent years, I’ve spent more time on the side of the table that does the hiring. Even the interview process was foreign. Like a nostalgia-bomb from my young adult years. I remember the anticipation and practicing. When I walked up the stairs at Fire Admin and let myself into the interview room – only to find the previous candidate still being interviewed, I thought that was a wrap for the whole process. Still, I composed myself in the hallway and eased into an apology once I was called into the room.

In many ways, that describes well the process of being recruited as a firefighter if you did not attend an academy. When I began to ground myself as a recruit for my department, I recognized that I would have to become intimately familiar with being well outside of my comfort zone.

I am a brand new firefighter. At 35 years old, I’ve been around long enough to know about some of the things this culture finds valuable; hard work, being a part of the team and being helpful. In terms of my service, however, I’m very green. I figured I would write out some of the things I’ve bumped into along the way to help out somebody like me – new to the fire service and hungry for information. Being the new guy is about getting better at being uncomfortable, being fit and committing to what needs to be done.

Get better at being uncomfortable.

In a recent podcast episode on the IgnitedFF podcast, I had a conversation with Ryan about responsibility and growth. Ryan mentioned the idea that a skill you can develop is in the act of being uncomfortable. Not so much the age-old saying that you should ‘be comfortable’ doing so – his idea was that being uncomfortable is in the name, and it’s not so much something that you can make feel better as much as it’s something you can be better at. I agree fully with that premise.

By engaging in activities that are in and of themselves uncomfortable can help sharpen your resiliency.

Getting yourself to be more resilient will help you overcome the constant failure you should experience as a recruit. Whether you’re studying for an exam and keep checking the wrong box or you’re having a hard time adjusting to a practical requirement, you will experience failure. The defining difference between wishers and workers is how you resolve yourself against these obstacles. Where you are met with challenge, you need to be able to still move forward.

When I was in a practical class setting, we were drilling on a forcible entry door. A team that was working to break through the wooden barriers set to the inside of the door were having a hell of a go at it, but couldn’t summon the strength and angle required to break through. One of the team members dropped their axe and vocalized their fatigue.

The instructor was not pleased, to say the least.

Ask for help. Find a flank. Adjust.

Don’t quit.

Being the new guy means doing everything that is available to be done.

Being the new guy is an opportunity to learn.
Images kindly donated by @livingbyyyz on IG

There’s many an adage that suggests the ‘probie’ should be seeking opportunities to do the things that need to be done.

Empty hands are wasted hands.

When we were preparing an acquired structure for training evolutions, a number of instructors had taken to the interior to shovel away debris. Myself and another recruit cut our lunch break early to go help out.

I asked to take the shovel from one of the instructors and was told bluntly that my attitude toward the work was right on point. That ‘you should take the shovel from the senior guy’ if you’re otherwise not engaged.

I’ve employed this idea toward nearly everything I can muster. If I don’t get to the station in time to make the truck, I’m on a mop. When the association was looking for volunteers, I stepped up. Where responsibility is offered, I accept.

I ask if there’s anything else I can do before I head home from a call.

You should too. You asked to be here.

You should be physically fit.

Fitness (to firefighting!) Journey: It’s possible.

It’s not easy. It shouldn’t be.

I have a buddy who also works in the first responder world. Above their kit room, a banner displays a simple question.

What if everybody was just like you?

Being the new guy further solidifies this point. I am expected not only to stand on the foundation of those firefighters that came before me but to lift that platform up and make better the fire family that brought me in. If you are not physically capable of performing the tasks required, you are a liability.

I wrote out that sentence a few times before I put a period on it. That’s a strong way to state it, but I really do feel like it’s true. You’re a liability if you can’t perform.

That’s not to say that you have to be an athlete, but my family would certainly appreciate the reps you put in at the gym. I suspect your family would feel the same.

Be resourceful.

The era we live in places the entire collected knowledge of our species at your fingertips in an almost-instant, wireless and nearly-free manner. That leaves very little room for complacency.

At the final day of our practical training, we were ushered a warning that echoes through every fire hall in the country; complacency kills.

My station does not have any workout equipment. You know what it does have?

SCBA packs. Cinder blocks. A nearby forest with a whole bunch of logs.

Our department does not have a wild training budget. You know what it does have?

Internet access. There are an absolute plethora of free or inexpensive training opportunities to be had online. If you’re following the right account on Instagram (like FireXTraining) and if you’re looking in the right places (like FEMA) there are hours of training available to you.

You don’t need to fill out a form to watch the Stockton Fire replays on YouTube.

Nothing needs to change in your schedule to commit to an asynchronous online course.

There is training available for autism and dementia awareness specifically geared to first responders.

It’s okay to be ‘into’ the job.

Not that you need permission, but it’s a note that I think is worth repeating. From my perspective, there’s a degree of investment I’m required to have toward this job in order to meet the level of performance expected by my crew and the people I respond to. That commitment means, at times, I’ll have to do more.

Generally, as a rule, I think that’s a good takeaway here. Being the new guy means doing more.

Get to the station early to help setup. Stay late to help tear down.

Ask relevant questions and take notes.

Drill your skills continuously.

Being the new guy is doing more.

Showing up is not enough.

Bill Dungey is a volunteer firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is focused on fitness, mindset development and finding training opportunities to help the fire service make things better.

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