The Roundtable: Passing Down Traditions

What in your department’s history is valued and passed down?

(Matt Gehm photo)

Bobby Halton and Bill Carey

This month’s roundtable question will hopefully take you to something enjoyable.  We are looking for what parts of your department’s history and traditions are passed down to new firefighters.  It can range from a significant event from the past to a simple, constant tradition in a firehouse.  The aim is to see what in your department’s history is valued and passed down.

April Roundtable Question:
What Traditions in Your Department Are Passed Down to New Firefighters?

Lane Woolery

Not sure if this speaks specifically to tradition but my department has instituted the practice of providing a “customs and traditions” briefing to recruits prior to leaving the academy.

This session is conducted by a couple of firefighters with approximately five years of service. The intent being that they’ve got some experience yet still have relatively fresh memories of what it’s like to be a probie . The class takes place without the presence of the academy instructors and staff, as such takes on more of a peer to peer format. It’s a way to say to the new firefighter “you’re a teammate of mine now, we’re gonna be on the nozzle together, here’s how we behave out there.”

The fire service is full of “unwritten rules” that are typically passed on in an informal way. How many times have you heard “that new kid just doesn’t get it”?  This class is an attempt to eliminate that by clarifying the social norms and expected conduct that’s not covered by policy both in the station and on incidents.

While this may add a layer of artificiality to our traditional way of passing on tribal lore, I can say as “customer” of this training process, it produces a very consistent product. Probationary firefighters tend to conduct themselves in very predictable manner, with far fewer of those awkward breaches of etiquette seen in years past

Alexis Shady

My favorite department tradition isn’t for new hires, but for retirees. On the evening of their last shift, they take one last ride through the city in the engine. The ride ends at home, where they are greeted by their families. 

Ed Dolan

When we bring in a new member to meet the officers we point him or her to the wall in our meeting room. It is there, where pictures of every active 50-year member hang. Next to those are plaques recognizing members who have served in the world wars and those who perished. We tell them “you now stand on the shoulders of these good people, do not let them down.” It’s a very sobering and overwhelming feeling every time we do it. It makes one realize the people who built the fire service and our communities that came before us.

Mike Dugan

The traditions that are passed down in the FDNY start in the Fire Academy. New probationary members are taught that they are part of a team. They are broken up into squads and they work as they would on the company level, together. They help each other study for the tests, prepare for the physical activities, and do the proper techniques during the hands-on portion of the training.

Then they go to their assigned firehouse and they learn about the traditions that company and firehouse have in place. When I was the captain of Ladder Company 123 the previous captain had developed a task list by tour for the probies. Their job was explained in detail depending on if they were working a day tour or a night tour. It listed what their tasks and duties were specifically.

The new probies were also given a tool list detail of all of the apparatus compartments and their tools. This coincided with their task list because they were told what tools had to be started daily or weekly. They understood where these tools were located and how they had to be cared for. The first few times they did these jobs they were supervised by the senior person working on that tour.

They were also given a Bill of Rights that they were expected to uphold in the traditions of the company and the firehouse. They signed their personal Bill of Rights and it was kept in their file. This let them know that they were buying into their traditions of the company that everyone before that had been a part of.

By writing all of these things down we had a set of rules that they could follow. I think the most difficult thing for the new members is to know about rules that they have never been told about. Having these things written down, spelled out, for the new members gives both the probies and company members a foundation on which they can build and improve the company and therefore the firehouse.

David Bullard

While not a new hire tradition,​ we do have one for newly promoted lieutenants. Starting a couple of decades ago, a captain hands a set of collar brass (trumpets) to a new lieutenant, with their name and date of promotion.  The set of trumpets is passed down by the holder, to a newly promoted Lieutenant, with their name and date added.    A pretty cool path of owners, showing mentors and friends, who have shared the trumpets.   

Rick Lasky

The word tradition is taken by some to mean something bad, something ancient and outdated, and in some cases dangerous.  Let’s be clear.  To do something or carry on a tradition that is dangerous and irresponsible is NOT what we’re talking about here.  You see the right tradition is not a bad thing.  The one that takes us on a journey back in time.  Where we revisit our history and our heritage.  Its’ where we grab a hold of what it is that we do in the fire service and why we actually do it.  It’s where we define “service above self!”  And that is something we have done since the fire service was created.  Helping people.

As for passing down the traditions within a fire department from one generation to the next, from a senior firefighter to the probie, nothing can be more important in providing the foundation that they need to be successful, for a long, healthy, safe, and incredible career, then explaining how they fit in and what will get them there.  AKA, the “talk.”

We always started them off with an explanation of where it all started for our fire department, the history and how it all evolved.  For them to see into the future they have to look back to see how far we’ve come and what it took to get it all there.

Next comes the mission of the fire service, our department, what the fire service is all about, where it all came from and where are we going.  That to be good you have to have ownership but to be great you have to have a passion for it.  You can’t be great at anything that you don’t love to do.  Period!

Then the question of what kind of a firefighter do you want to be? That it all starts on their first day.  Again, do they have that passion yet?  Are they willing to commit to our family?  To our tradition?  That they need to get involved with the department.  To understand its heritage.  To get as much training as they can.  To do what is right, to do their best, and treat others as they would like to be treated.

To consider becoming one of the “Go-To” guys.  Someone they can depend on to get the job done — the person the boss can go to because he knows you’ll do it well and with no complaints.  Be the kind of probie that has to be ordered to take a break and when you do, you don’t sit.  To be the kind of probie that the other shifts are jealous of.  The one that has others saying, “Why do they always get the good ones?”  This means you don’t just show up on time, you show up early.  You wear your uniform, take care of it, and are proud of what it represents.  That you take care of the firehouse, your apparatus and your tools.  It’s not just an image thing.  By the way, the mops, the brooms, all of that cleaning, the “Rookie” or Probie” work, is not a punishment or ritual to put the new firefighter through.  It’s a way for them to show you just how bad they want to be a member of your department.  Stop using it as a bad thing.  Get them to take ownership, again, show you each and every day just how bad they want to be a part of your fire department.

Emphasize that they need to learn their trade, before they learn the tricks.  To train as if their life depends on it, because it does!  Train on firefighter survival.  Control the gossip, rumor, and character assassination mill and not contribute to it!!  To remember they’re creating their own legacy.  What will they say about you one day, a long time form now?  Remember what they owe the public, to defend our profession and be as proud of the job in the firehouse as they are out of it.  Be passionate about our profession, take care of each other — for real!  And constantly ask themself, “Are they making a difference?”  And most importantly, that never forgetting means never forgetting!

There are a so many vital and little bits of information that will help you carry on the tradition of your department in the new firefighter.  The mentor book, the history books, department archives, but nothing will start them off better when it comes to keeping tradition alive then the very first talk you have with them and those that follow.

Oren Bersagel-Briese

While there is a lot of history and tradition shared through the fire station and the crew life, as an organization, we begin talking about both of those things even before our newest members start the fire academy. We bring them into the department a few days before the academy starts, and on their first day we discuss the organization’s history, our line of duty death, and who we are culturally. We talk about how we got to where we are today and what makes us who we are.

Within that discussion, we also share our expectations specific to the academy and their first year, and that they are representative of everyone that is currently a member as well as everyone that came before them. Acknowledging our history and traditions, while enforcing our organization’s culture is a critical piece for all of our newest firefighters.

Stephen Marsar

What Traditions in Your Department Are Passed Down to New Firefighters?
1. The historical traditions and specific incidents of self-sacrifice, service, bravery, and duty.
2. The importance of Chain of Command and seniority, along with the hierarchy of informal leadership in everyday firehouse life. Additionally we encourage new firefighters to listening and learn from retired members and those who have come before us.
3. Lessons learned from past events and incidents.
4. The importance of basic firefighting skills and consistency, to achieve our mission.
5. The fact that complacency kills.

Frank Ricci

Two of New Haven’s unique traditions came to mind for this months question. The first one is getting a cigar, not an actual cigar. It is a term that through the years has come to be know as getting yelled at, told you did something wrong or just politely being coached or counseled. Yes, sorry there are no feeling officers at a fire or rescue scene. That comes after when you may need a hug, but not on the fire ground. 

Owning up to your peers that you got a cigar helps take the sting out of admitting you were wrong. Its a way to break the ice by saying “I got a cigar” and sharing the lesson you learned or what you would have done differently. We all make mistakes or would take different actions in hind sight. As firefighters and officers we often have to make almost perfect decisions based off imperfect information. If you haven’t made the wrong call at a fire, then you clearly haven’t been to enough fires. 

The key to getting a cigar during a critique or after action review is to own it. State, what you should have done different and share it. We all learn from our own mistakes, however only the wise learn from others mistakes and the foolish don’t learn at all and just make excuses. 

This is the first rule of any form of crisis management, get it out, get it out first, get the facts right and than get it behind you. Over the years my office was affectionately know as the humidor. I also learned if your the boss giving yourself a cigar to start an after action review will allow others to realize that you are not above the company and are part of the team. This allows them to open up and gets the most out of the review. 

The other New Haven Tradition that stuck is our white trucks. Yes, I miss the red apparatus of Rockville engine 311 and truck 31 from my live in days, but at least New Haven unlike a lot of departments doesn’t have an arbitrary reason for their truck colors. 

During World War II, being on the coast the city was concerned with the probability of a Nazi sub attack and shelling from our deep water port. In response the city practiced black outs to minimize the city silhouette from the Long Island Sound. They soon realized in the cavernous streets between the building responding fire trucks, red at the time, looked black. In response the department adapted and painted all apparatus white so when running at night without lights they would be easier to see. We are proud that our truck symbolize preparedness and our national great history.

Note: Responses are solely the opinion and views of the individual and have only been edited for grammatical reasons.

Do you want to be part of the next Roundtable?
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