Sage advice for recruits from a fire-service veteran
May 10, 2006
Vol. 23 Issue 3
Young and Old
By Nick Brunacini
I am awash in deep reflection. I just read a highly classified internal memo describing how the Phoenix Fire Department is going to hire 250-300 new firefighters in the next several years. This number is more than triple our typical rate of new hires. Large numbers of retiring members coupled with wild growth in the Valley of the Sun have created a hiring boom. In the same load of interdepartmental mail, I also received my 25-year service pin. It's a dazzling fake gold Phoenix bird with cubic zirconium eyes. In some twisted Dilbertian way the yellow bird pin completes me.
The 25 years puts my career more than two-thirds behind me, causing a certain sense of serenity, much like a 12-year-old boy in an idyllic alpine world, sledding with his wet nurse and pet wolf dog. This thought and these feelings compete with my alter ego: a deranged, one-eyed bag lady who collects headless dolls. This is what a career in the fire service does to a person.
During the late 1970s and early '80s the Phoenix Fire Department hired a large number of firefighters. Our training academy was designed to accommodate 25 recruits. Hiring was so out of hand that we had to cap academy-class sizes at 40 recruits. This trend continued into the mid-'80s when the fire department took over emergency ambulance service. After the hiring bang of the mid-'80s, hiring dropped way off. I estimate we've hired an average of 30 or 40 new firefighters a year during the past 20 years. This has caused us to age as an organization. In 1985 our department's average age hovered in the mid-twenties. We were young, full of piss and vinegar, and didn't have a care in the world. Today, almost half of the Phoenix Fire Department requires the aide of reading glasses and is eligible for retirement.
I would like to take this opportunity to send a shout out to all of the new firefighters just beginning their careers. The majority of your first year will be devoted to learning the basics: hose lays; the proper techniques for throwing ground ladders; the fact that emergency responders should not shave expectant mothers "down there" prior to delivering babies; and all of the other essential, front-end training that goes into learning how to be a firefighter. I don't want to talk about any of that stuff. Instead, I would like to discuss fire-service culture and how you fit in, along with some explanations that may help you better understand our closed society and freemason-like ways.
The ancient Greeks established what has become the modern fire service. This same group also invented the multi-level marketing system (i.e. pyramid or Ponzi scheme), so everything was designed around seniority. The oldest and wisest Greek fire chiefs would occupy the highest chair in the room. They proudly wore togas of spun gold while the more junior members of the fire company mowed the grass, cleaned the bathrooms and did busy work. Prior to any type of career-development activity, the new guys were required to rub soothing emollients (made by Amway) into the skin of the older men. As newer members were added to the company, the junior members would move up in the pecking order. This level of seniority allowed the sophomore firefighters to wrestle and play ring toss with the older firefighters. Another added bonus for the older members were the halftime festivities, where the probationary firefighters gave sponge baths and fed grapes to the senior members of the fire company. Over the eons, our physical fitness programs, apparatus and uniforms have changed but we still cling to the organizational and cultural systems developed by our Greek ancestors.
Our most significant and profound cultural changes have occurred within the last 50 or 60 years. Nowadays, we select firefighters based on their qualifications, not the color of their skin, ethnicity, sexual preference (a very big hitter in the ancient Greek fire service) or gender. Another major cultural advancement took place in the late 1970s when the forward thinkers of our service added emergency medical response to our service delivery menu. Taking on EMS blew a big hole in the We will Never Change bunker. This simple and profound shift slowly brought about the sunset of the good old days when we admired the size of our gonads by the firelight (a carry over from our Greek fathers). Prior to the dreaded EMS, the barometer of being a good firefighter was your ability to press the attack and take the pain. Today life moves a lot faster and some days it seems like our service no longer resembles itself but at our core (and culture) we are still who we are.
One of the constants within our organization is an obsession with trying to figure out the most recent generation of new hires. I just sat through a two-day seminar where one of the classes was titled, "Understanding the New Generation of Firefighters." I am sure it will amaze the new generation to find out the biggest difference between you and anyone born before 1980 is your ability to use a computer and the amount of talk time you spend on the cell phone. You also value your time off more than working overtime (this will change when you obtain a mortgage).
Another flash to the blindingly obvious is that you young whippersnappers like your information MTV style-in short, intense bursts. You mean you don't like long boring lectures that seem to never end? The nerve. The problem with accommodating you on this issue is it forces us to redesign training programs, some of which have worked just fine for the last 50 years.
Some of the seasoned veterans will tell you this organizational need to understand you is based on the need to assimilate you more completely. Don't fall for it. Sometimes the ulterior motive behind the dissection of the latest generation is to determine their shortcomings and weaknesses so they can be used to beat you over the head. This accomplishes two things: 1) It tends to make you question your self worth; and 2) It makes the beaters feel better about themselves. This behavior is often justified as "testing the mettle" of the young employee. This boorish conduct also gets packaged as your "right of passage." When this cycle repeats itself, it becomes the gift each previous generation of miscreants gives the next. If you follow ugly children home you are most likely to find ugly parents.
Many people who use the term "right of passage" use it incorrectly and are generally jerks. Right of passage means that you have worked to achieve a goal and have now earned the rights that go along with that accomplishment. Right of passage is sometimes bastardized as an excuse to lord over and treat new members less than nice. It is disturbing to watch a three-year "veteran" act with an arrogance toward junior members that one would normally expect from a table full of super models being rude to the restaurant staff. It is the responsibility of the senior members of the group to slap these prima donnas down and restore organizational harmony. Nothing will wreck a fire department any more thoroughly or quickly than internal fighting and nastiness. How an organization treats its young says more about it than any other single thing. You hired on as a firefighter and should expect to work hard and get dirty. You didn't sign up to be an emotional piņata for broken and angry employees to take their frustration out on.
As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. New people shouldn't be treated like houseboys or chambermaids. On the other hand don't expect the group to throw a party every time you enter the room. We expect things of the new folks. Keep in mind that most of your workmates (particularly old crews) have been together for a long time, developed deep meaningful relationships and are loyal and protective of one another. You are new and everyone is forming an opinion of you. A good rule of thumb for new firefighters is whenever anyone is working, you should be working. You shouldn't have to be told to do basic things like throwing out the trash and cleaning the bathroom. Expecting a probationary firefighter to make coffee is not abuse. It is bad posture for the new guy or gal to fall asleep in a recliner after lunch while the rest of the crew does the dishes and cleans the kitchen. You should do a little more than the older members.
It is important to keep in mind that the world turns in circles. You are just beginning your career. Before you know it you will be taking promotional exams and moving up the ranks. A few weeks ago one of my workmates told me about a conversation he had with one of the guys that worked in his battalion. This member came to him because his son was testing for the fire department, and he was concerned about one of the captains who sat on the final selection board. Here it is in a nutshell:
Member: "I'm worried that my kid won't get a fair shake because Sam is on the final selection committee."
BC: "Sam's a good guy, why would you be worried about him?"
Member: "Because he was a booter (probationary firefighter) at our station and I wasn't impressed with him."
Member: "Well, I wasn't always as nice as I should have been."
This is a classic example of the chickens coming home to roost. Someone decided they could be mean to someone else. At the time the older member had the power and the new guy just had to take it. A decade or so later the member is highly stressed that there might be major repercussions for his nastiness. As luck would have it, the member's offspring dropped out of the testing process and moved to another state to get away from his father. A few months later Sam took the vacant captain's spot on the member's engine company and soon thereafter (actually less than 24 hours later) the member left the station and is now roving on another shift. Sometimes life just works out like it's supposed to, which leads us to the major difference between the fire service and the rest of today's employment world.
The single biggest cultural difference between the fire service and every other profession is lifetime employment. When I began my career in the fire service it seemed that many of the other large companies filled their work rosters with career employees. Companies like IBM, the big automakers and General Electric-along with the rest of corporate America-had fulltime, lifetime workforces. Lifelong employment meant a person could start with an organization and work their way up the ladder. They had a real pension, insurance, earned leave and could raise and support a family. This is not the case in today's employment world. Most workers will work for seven or more different companies during their working life. Defined benefit pensions are rapidly being replaced by 401Ks, and employers and their workforce are struggling with ways to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of health insurance. The culture of the American workforce has undergone massive changes over the past 20 years. The vast majority of new firefighters go to work in a place where they will spend their entire professional career. Job security is a good thing and has had made our entrance process much more competitive. You know the world has turned upside down when lawyers are signing up to take a fire department's entrance exam.
The fire service's cradle-to-grave employment practices can create what some city administrators have termed secret societies. What this means for you, Mr. and Ms. Young Firefighter, is you have joined a place where everyone knows everyone else and is suspect of anyone from outside the group. Another cultural reality is everyone on the fire department is somehow connected to one another. I don't mean this in the "all for one and one for all" sense; I mean it literally. Everyone within a fire department is related through blood, marriage, divorce, fishing or any of the other countless human activities. It is not smart to speak ill of a workmate (whether or not they deserve it) in the company of other firefighters. I remember a story an old engineer told me when I was just beginning my career:
"We had just finished lunch when a woman was walking up to the station. She was an older gal and a little on the heavy side. One of the regular crewmembers was on vacation that day and had been replaced by a young roving firefighter. As the kid watched the lady make her way toward our front door, he said, 'I hope she doesn't want a blood pressure, because we don't have a BP cuff that big.' Before he could finish giggling over his witty remark the captain replied, 'I don't think the lady wants her blood pressure taken; she's here to see her husband.' It took that kid 10 years to recover from that comment. Son, you can be here your whole life and still not know who's hooked up to who."
Another significant difference between the firefighter's job and most other occupations is the fact that it is pretty easy to get killed when you operate inside buildings that are on fire. As if this isn't bad enough, we routinely operate at non-fire emergency scenes where you can die. Because the older members of the organization have been doing this kind of work a lot longer than you, it would be wise to learn the behaviors that have kept them alive and allowed them to grow older. It is impossible to sit through a modern-day tactics class without hearing the instructor refer to the "set of slides" contained in the heads of the seasoned veterans. It is the incumbents' job to pass what they know on to the next generation. This is the easy end of the deal. The young need to take all of that training, skill and knowledge, make sense of it and apply it in the worst possible work place one could imagine (a building on fire). As stupid as this may sound, this is the easy part. The bigger challenge happens after you have been around a while. It is your responsibility to take what you have learned, mix it with your experience and figure out how to elevate your departments operations and service delivery to the next level. This is the challenge. The only way things get better is when someone figures out a better way of doing business.
Today's firefighter faces a much different workscape than any that came before them. The world is a much more hectic, fast-paced and hazardous place than it was just a few years ago. The incumbents worry that the new generation isn't ready. I say phooey. My youngest daughter is a 10-year-old fifth grader, and she generally misses the homework math problems I help her with. The newest generation of firefighter is smarter, stronger, prettier and better smelling than their older counterparts. Give them 10 years, and they will be every bit as grizzled. Let me be the first to give them a big Dating Game kiss.
Nick Brunacini has been with the Phoenix (Ariz.) Fire Department since 1980 and has served as a firefighter, captain, battalion chief and shift commander. Brunacini helped develop the Fire Command and Command Safety-Saving Our Own curricula packages. He has been an instructor at Phoenix College since 1990.