Throughout life we all tend to look back and say that if we had to do it all over again, there are things we would do different. Maybe it’s a function of the aging process, it is certainly a function of learning from the hard lessons in life. So, it would only make sense that if we could help our younger selves, we can certainly help those coming into the fire service.
Imagine if we could we could go back and mentor ourselves. What would we say? What would we teach?
Work hard: Be extremely driven and forward thinking. Develop a strong work ethic, both on and off the job. The more balanced you are with home and work, the better you will be at work. Life was meant to be lived to the fullest and take every opportunity to do just that. Bring humility and compassion to everything you do. Leave your ego at the door. The job will demand these qualities from you. Be the first one to stand and the last one to sit. You are earning your way into an honorable profession. The world and the job owe you nothing. Those that come before you deserve your respect. Always be the first one up to help and always be the last one to sit down. If there is nothing to do, then go clean something or train on something. FDNY has something they call the probie triangle. It’s three points are the coffee pot, the kitchen sink, and the truck. If you aren’t at one you should be at the other.
A note about coffee, the kitchen table and the front bumper: The staple of most firehouses is a fresh
brewed pot of coffee and good conversation at the kitchen table or the front bumper of the
apparatus. Don’t miss this opportunity, even if you don’t drink coffee. Sit and listen, reflect and become
better. Additionally, coffee is the welcome mat to anyone who visits, making sure it’s fresh and
hot will lead to many opportunities for growth.
Listen more than you talk: A rule of conversation is 70/30. Listen 70% of the time, talk 30% of the time. Another saying is 2 ears and one mouth, speak twice as much as you talk. Either way as a new firefighter, ask questions but don’t have an opinion. Be a sponge and absorb everything around you, and you can’t do that if your gums are flapping. Question everything, respectfully. Question to learn and understand, not to criticize and change. There is a ton of information out there and not all of it is good. Ask questions, learn. Respect those that come before you but evaluate what they teach you based on what you know. If there is a conflict, find someone you trust and ask them.
Be on time: Early is on time and on time is late. Every shift you show up for, someone is waiting to be relieved. Be early so they can get out and go home to their families. Be early so that you have time to get ready for your shift. Be early even if your relief keeps you waiting until the last minute. It’s not about what they do, it’s about what you do.
Surround yourself with the right people: Find your mentors. Learn why they do what they do. Learn something from everyone. Everyone has something to offer, even if it something you would never do. Never under estimate the value of a person. Accept people for who they are and learn from what they have to offer.
Be resilient: Develop good coping skills and push yourself to be uncomfortable. Uncomfortable leads to growth and growth makes you better. You are going to see and do things you never imagined. They will have an impact and “harden” you over time. This isn’t a life sentence and doesn’t have to damage you. But you must accept and deal with it. The time to think about your reactions is not in the moment. You must contemplate your reaction ahead of time so that you can function in the moment and you can process it when it is over. What the triumph offers in satisfaction the tragedies will counter with volume. Over time these things will become a part of you, the fabric of your existence. The uniform of a life spent in the service of others. Embrace the good and manage the bad.
“We love it for the times we make a difference. We love it for the times that we “win”. We love it because that’s who we are. We hate it for the lives lost, the Brothers killed and maimed, for the battles lost. But we continue on because that’s who we are.” – Robert Pressler, Fireman 1st Grade FDNY – Ret
We come first: Understand when this applies. You are in the business of service. There is risk, injury and sickness. Bad things happen to good people, and fireman are some of the best people there are. But we don’t come first when it comes to the mission. The community, the people, they come first, and our every effort must be geared toward saving them and protecting their property. So, when do we come first? Right up until we cross the threshold. Prepare yourself, physically and mentally. Eat better. Exercise. Train. Learn. Do everything you can to make your mind and body as prepared and healthy as possible. Wear your mask… every time, all the time! Car fires, dumpster fires, rubbish fires. There is no honor in eating smoke and there is no longevity in doing it either. You are not invincible; no matter how much preparation you do to make yourself that way. Wash your gear. Gross decon on scene and a thorough cleaning either on a schedule or after a fire. How much smoke you can eat or how “salty” you look doesn’t define you as a fireman.
Accept change: Accept change as a part of life. “Seek first to understand”, this advice applies to most conflicts, and change is almost always a conflict. Both internally and externally. Do no advocate for change that benefits only you. Always ask the question, “is this better for the department?”. Try and be objective in you answer.
Be that guy: Working the shifts you work is hard on everyone. Understand that you will miss family time, special events, birthdays due to work. Work your holidays, and when you are starting out cover those with families for theirs. In time you will have a family and the next guy along will do it for you.
Pay it forward: As you climb the ladder don’t lose your passion for the job. Share what you have learned, mentor the next person coming along. New firefighters will look up to you, they will try and emulate you. The children are watching. Make sure you are consistent in your words and actions. Integrity is always doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.
Pass on your knowledge: Remember that someone took the time to teach you. Holding on to knowledge hurts the organization. Knowledge is only power if you share it. It was never about you, not from the first day. This applies even more as you become more senior. The mission and organization come first. This is where the quiet professional takes hold.
Family first: No matter how much you are into the job, love the job or want to be at the job. Make time for your family. You will be successful because they stand behind you, make sure you make time for them. You will be successful because they stand behind you, make sure you make time for them. Make sure you take care of yourself, so you can be there for them. Not just physically, but mentally too. Too often we hold on to what has happened at work and while we are “with” our families, we are miles away.
It is never too late to start doing good work. Maybe you started off on the wrong path, it can be easy to do. Maybe someone stole your light and your passion has burned out. None of that matters, what matters is what you do from today forward. We all earn tattoos. Articles have been written about how what we do and who we are can be just like a tattoo. a constant reminder of choices we have made and things we have done. Like tattoos, our choices and actions can be good and bad. They may fade over time, but they will always be there. Hopefully this advice to our early selves can lay the foundations for a lot of good ink because the minute you walk through the firehouse door you are building your legacy.
This fire service is one of the most rewarding opportunities a person can experience. We are fortunate to be allowed to be caretakers of this noble calling. Only you can choose what kind of mark you want to leave. Only you can decide if your fire service eulogy will read “motivated and hard charging” or “couch riding potato.” Only you control whether you will leave the fire service and your department better than you found it.
Dave LeBlanc is currently a Deputy Chief for Fire Department in the Northeast, Dave’s Fire Service experience spans three decades including having worked as a call firefighter, a volunteer firefighter, a career fire alarm operator, fire fighter and company officer. Dave currently teaches as an adjunct instructor for a local community college, has worked as a fire academy instructor and presented and the New England FOOLs Northeast Fire Summit. Dave is married and the father of two daughters.
Kelly Lemmons was born in Vicenza, Italy. He is the Deputy Chief of the Colonial Park Fire Company and a firefighter/EMT for the Defense Logistics Agency. Kelly has served over 19 years in the PA Army National Guard, 15 1/2 of those years he served in the Long Range Reconnaissance Unit as a Team Leader. He is currently a Staff Sergeant serving as an Infantry Advance Leaders Course Instructor. Kelly was awarded the Purple Heart due to injuries sustained while conducting combat operations in Iraq in 2005 – 2006.