A new recruit/probationary firefighter enters the firehouse for his very first tour. Unlike most others who have come before him, this particular “newbie” is older in age, has an established life outside the department, and is a United States veteran. Knocking on the door with his elbows (because his arms are full of pastries and/or breakfast goodies to make a positive first impression), so far so good.
The new member is let in to the firehouse, introduced, and shown around the station and apparatus. The senior member, who also happens to be the lieutenant, takes note of what he perceives to be the somewhat smug and overconfident nature of this particular person and decides right then and there that no matter what this person does it won’t be good enough. He’s going to try and “knock him down a few pegs” before building him up into the firefighter that he and this firehouse demand.
After several weeks of not being able to get anything right in the eyes of the lieutenant (and senior firefighter), the probationary member decides to have a talk with the officer the next time they’re together in the firehouse. The new member practices the meeting over and over again in his head. It is the first and last thing he thinks about on waking in the morning and turning in at night. He’s rehearsed his lines and played out multiple scenarios in his head of all the plausible outcomes.
Then, the fateful day arrives. After completing all chores that are expected, the nervous probationary member knocks on the open office door and asks the lieutenant if he can have a word. The officer invites him in, and the recruit closes the door (letting the officer know the seriousness of the conversation). The probie begins to ramble through his well-rehearsed lines. “Lieu, have I done or said something wrong to you? It seems that no matter what I do, you have issues with it, even when the task is being performed correctly.” Unexpectedly, the officer (barely able to keep a straight face from laughing) says: “You’re damn right you’ve done something wrong. In fact, you do everything wrong!”
Trying harder to contain his laughter and not give himself away, the lieutenant continues, “The world needs ditch diggers too; maybe you’re just not cut out to be a firefighter.” The astonished face of the heartbroken recruit, searching for words and trying to take in a breath, lets the officer know that he’s got ’em beat. Bursting out in a raucous belly laugh, the lieutenant can no longer contain himself-the jig is up; the recruit now knows that he’s been set up the entire time. The officer stands and shakes the probie’s hand and tells him that he’s been doing an exceptional job and all is well. “We just needed to challenge your cockiness a little so that you learn your place and get in line with the program.”
It’s Not Always Smooth Sailing
What if it didn’t go this way? What if the lieutenant (and senior member) really had a problem with the new member and their polar-opposite personalities were coming to a head? When having a disagreement with someone (whether they’re a coworker, a superior, or a subordinate), you need to stand clear of getting into an argument or getting into a contest of “marking” one’s territory.
Each player in the firehouse/workplace environment has a place and belonging. That place may change or shift from time to time and from person to person as expertise, seniority, or being in a certain place at a certain time may put all of us in different positions here and there. Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you. Sometimes you’re the joker, and sometimes you’re the butt of the joke. Sometimes you’re the windshield, and sometimes you’re the bug (I think you get the idea). Being flexible and recognizing when it’s time to be a follower or time to step up and be a leader are imperative to form cohesive working relationships and form a tight knit group of coworkers-especially in the fire and emergency services world.
Company officers must be careful while trying to set the tone for the shift/tour/company/station/firehouse. In the story above, the officer felt compelled to take matters into his own hands in setting the new member off on the right foot and “putting him in his place.” In a fire or emergency scenario, officers take over and dominate short conversations-as it should be. The officer might have missed the probationary member’s life story (even if he cared to listen to it) and possibly failed to recognize that this older and life-experienced “probie” has an established life and is not just some teenager who never had a job and is coming in green from the academy. Perhaps the new member’s perceived cockiness is merely maturity and confidence. The new member in this story appears to be doing the right thing and all that is expected of him; perhaps the officer’s perception was a little off.
Trimming the Fat
Did the officer’s perception and the subsequent “hard time” he doled out on the new member hurt the new member? Probably not. Did it leave a scar on the new member and ruin his future career? Hopefully not. Did the officer ever take the time to evaluate and size up the total package of the new probationary member? Probably not. Maybe after reading this article, the officer would try to learn about the new member (and each crew member) on a personal level and give them an opportunity to learn and grow within our family.