The Apprentice Firefighter

16 mins read

I’ve chosen the title carefully. The new firefighter at your station has a few different subtitles. Probie. Rookie. Newbie. Absolutely – all of the above. Most importantly for me, I view my role as an apprentice firefighter. Similar, at least to trades that require time on the tools to claim a more full-blooded title of journeyman.

I’m unabashedly a newer firefighter. I’ve been to a good handful of calls and trained with the department on the fundamental skills of fire craft. What I lack in experience, I certainly hope to make up for it with enthusiasm. That might be the first – and best – place to start. Your involvement in the fire service is hinged on the amount of effort you put in. That simple, life-spanning rule is the best place to make sure your mind is right. Whether you are stepping into the first day of your recruit class or headed to your first call, I strictly believe your focus and attitude should be all-in. After all, the Fully Involved blog touts this trait in their ‘big 4‘ set of fire culture rules.

  • Do your job.
  • Treat people right.
  • Give all out effort.
  • Have an all in attitude.

Finding a balance between being ravenous for the job and blending in with the crew should be at the front of your mind.

At one of the first association meetings I went to – an informal affair fuelled by pizza – I overheard a great phrase. Mentioning the attendance in the meeting and that it was productive for new people to be around for the more social side of the station, one firefighter mentioned;

“Firefighting is a team sport.”

Just as crucial to your engagement with the fire service as your entrance mindset is your ability to mesh with the group. It’s sort of obscene to note, but this is why we cast names upon the social outliers. Brown-nosers, leeches and one-uppers are people who have positioned themselves outside the norm. That’s why they have names attached to them. It’s crude, but more true the more I think about it.

Personality grids for the apprentice firefighter.

Keeping cohesion between your passion to put in work for the fire service and maintaining a positive social disposition should be a high ranking concern for the apprentice firefighter. Putting this into action is a balance of being mindful to engage your co-workers in conversation about lighter topics and more importantly, learning each personality on your crew.

Understanding personalities can help you navigate the social side.

Before we can touch on the actionable things the apprentice firefighter can be working on, the social link between you and your crew deserves special attention. Your passion to improve must be placed alongside the people you are working with. A common tool for understanding personality types in the workplace was created in 1956 by Walter Clarke, an industrial psychologist. The DISC assessment was originally created to predict job performance. To that end, DISC does not hold scientific validity. It does hold reliability, however, and an individual will get the same result if tested over time. For the purposes of understanding personalities, DISC can be used to categorize people into groups; Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness. These groups are outlined on discprofile.com, a site that offers a self-assessment tool to better understand how you might fall into each category.

Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness.

(D)ominance personalities tend to be confident and place an emphasis on accomplishing bottom-line results.

(I)nfluence personalities tend to be more open and place an emphasis on relationships and influencing or persuading others.

(S)teadiness personalities tend to be dependable and place the emphasis on cooperation and sincerity.

(C)onscientiousness personalities tend to place the emphasis on quality, accuracy, expertise, and competency.

Understanding the types of personalities on your crew and how your approach might differ among them is an important skill. We perform this analysis automatically when we interact with people and receive social feedback. In a conversation that is working well, the social needs on both sides are being met. However, if a talk between your coworkers is clunky, we know that we need to steer our words to be better understood. Use the DISC system to identify common personality types in your crew. Build strategies to communicate with those people in a way that enables positive outcomes.

Then, put in work.

A popular online resource for the apprentice firefighter is Train Your Probie. A list on their site puts 34 real-world ‘rules’ forward for new firefighters. I’ve taken a few nights to digest this list. There are a few points that really resonate with me.

Rule #2: Work hard. Firefighting is an honor, and in order to give this profession the respect it needs you need to do your job well every time.

This is a fundamental point. It boils the oil that cooks up writing and emergent ideas for me. I’ve long held the standpoint that we are lucky to have the opportunity to serve. Where careers are concerned, the fire service is built upon a foundation of heritage and sacrifice that very few paths share. Being included in this legacy is nothing short of a gift.

Rule #8: If you see something lying around the station, pick it up and find out where it goes.

This rule speaks to a common baseline; ownership. The station is a reflection of the crew. Just as your bedroom is a reflection of your current mind space. The way you organize your space has a direct effect on your ability to maintain control of your mindset. Likewise, it’s an indicator of value. To keep your station presentable is to suggest you are concerned about being presentable. You should be concerned about being presentable.

Rule #19: Have an “I’ll do it” attitude, if something needs to be done, go out and do it.

I’m careful to illustrate this correctly. I know that this part of my own personality can sometimes present intensely to those people who don’t have a clear view of my personality quite yet. To strike a balance between being seen as ‘putting the cart before the horse’ when it comes to getting things done, you can present this as a question. When we return to the station, I make sure to ask if there’s anything that needs to be done before I leave. I think that shows the ‘worker’ mentality without applying pressure on anybody.

There are things you can do without an audience that will do as much to get things done as well. You don’t need recognition to do the right thing.

Keep the sinks clean. Sweep the floor after a call.

Sure, the snow will be packed down in a path to the back door, but shovel that down to the pavement.

Teamwork predicates our service to the community. Image by @livingbyyyz

Rule #31: Find the senior firefighter and ask him if he will mentor you.

This one is downright challenging. Just the process of asking for mentorship puts you into a place where you’re really communicating a few different things. You’re asking to be told when you are out of line. You’re admitting to your apprentice role. Those are not easy things to bring up.

Here’s how it worked for me.

In a moment where I was chatting with a senior guy, one of our acting captains, we got to speaking about some more recent changes to the station and the department as a whole. As all things, our department is progressing. That slow development pushes against the way things have been and urges forward the way things are going. The process of progress can be – and maybe should be – a period of adaptation that challenges us to change. In other words, changes make us feel uncomfortable.

I recognized my role in that process as we spoke. I’m the apprentice firefighter, bringing in this another new era of personnel, policy and progress. Change.

When that idea folded into the conversation, I phrased my request just like this;

“If I step out of line, I want to know about it. Even if you think it might be hard to hear.”

Asking for mentorship is asking for feedback. That should come from a place of honesty which might carry a perspective that you could find abrasive. To prepare for that side of the conversation, you should practice being humble. Accept the idea that you will be prone to failure until you become more comfortable with the tasks you are responsible for. Where you do have things to work on, pursue opportunities to step in front of your failure points. Take on jobs that push you out of your comfort zone.

Doing so will not only allow you to sharpen those parts of your understanding that need attention, but you can set an example at the same time. If you are willing to change, that attitude can be infectious.

Course up.

Your formal education didn’t end when your Firefighter 1 and 2 stamps came in. After your recruit program, a wonderful opportunity exists. Now, not only can you refine and sharpen your baseline knowledge, you can seek out specialized training. Since COVID, these training providers have largely adapted by limiting actual classroom time and moving many courses online. I recently finished the IAFF Peer Fitness Trainer certificate program from the comfort of my home office.

There are trainings online for an immense array of subjects. From building construction to awareness level courses about responding to terrorist attacks, FEMA has an expansive library of free online courses that count toward continuing education credits. Emergency Management Ontario offers ICS 100 for free. There are courses from non-profit organizations on responding to emergencies with persons affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders and Dementia for little more than the cost of a fast-food lunch. Toward the more expensive online options are courses tackling peer support and CISM. Highly specialized courses exist too, like the new NFPA 3000: Standard for an Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program.

Fitness and firefighting; not a hobby.

I came back to this post after publishing it to add a new subheading about fitness. It’s all been said before, but a station practice had me specifically thinking about this component. Even moreso after a coworker mentioned a resounding ‘why’ about the specific drill we were working on.

A pair of training evolutions had us focused on the tasks of RIT. In one, we had to navigate to a PASS-blaring pack and untangle the straps, don it and get on air. In the next, we had to take a downed firefighter up a flight of stairs after properly packaging him up for transport. At a muscular build of 230-ish pounds, this task had three of us really huffing to get him up the stairs.

Sure, I’d passed the OFAI Stage 3 (FPAT) fitness test. Yeah, I roll jiu jitsu, lift weights and run.

Not good enough.

I wasn’t shocked by the amount of work involved. It wasn’t the weight of my SCBA or the mass of the downed firefighter that made me consider coming back to this write-up.

The apprentice firefighter should have at the very forefront of her mind a clear standard to uphold. Where fitness is concerned, that standard should be weighed against the hardest tasks on the fireground, not a formal workout program or light rolls at the jits club.

There is always room for improvement.

It’s better to be consistently good than periodically great.

I recently heard a thought about apprentice firefighters. You will be judged on your performance and fit for the probationary year, but even more so after that. As your initial time with the department curves into a more comfortable place, you may risk finding that comfort in the complacency of laziness. The apprentice firefighter mentality drives on the idea that you should constantly strive to make things better.

Where the pull of ‘good enough’ is so inviting, your community begs you to avoid the urge to retire the aggressive posture you started with.

There is always more to do.

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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