Book smarts and street smarts are
two different beasts
By Kyle Condra
This article is written just for you–yes, you. It is written to impact the perspective of a rookie firefighter, but the precepts can be used throughout your career and in any vocation outside of the fire service. Whether you have a minute on the job or are the most salty veteran in your department, everyone can relate to what it was like to be the “new guy/gal” and what the long-term expectations are for any firefighter.
Congratulations! You have graduated from your fire academy and have been given your first assignment. You are now in a transition period from recruit to firefighter, welcome to your probationary year! In most areas of the country, a first-year firefighter is considered an “at will employee.” In short, this means it is much easier for the fire department to sever ties with you now than it is after you complete your probationary year. Regardless of your department’s rules on this topic, I cannot begin to express how important your first year in the fire service is. There are so many different things to learn and, unfortunately, many of them are learned the hard way.
Every day in recruit class you were told where to be, where to go, what to do, and how to do it. The day you graduate, you are told where to go and told not to screw up. You may have been prepped on what the companies expect of you, but what is it they “really” want from you? Sure, you have to make sure everything is clean, there is always a fresh pot of coffee or iced tea, meals to be bought and prepped, station duties, making sure the truck and tools are clean and in working order, training, and more cleaning. Throw some calls in your day, and rinse and repeat.
But what is the why? Why do all these things matter? If you understand the why, then you can see the real importance of your first year and beyond.
Setting your legacy
This may be the most important topic of this entire article and one lesson I wish I would have learned in my first year and, better yet, my first day of recruit class. Every day you go to work, you are setting your personal legacy of who you truly are and how you will be known for the rest of your career. I personally continue to use this philosophy as an officer in my own career today, so it’s not just for the rookie.
When you show up to work, how do you show up? Do you work hard, or do you dodge your duties? Do you do the most menial tasks with as much drive as you do the most rewarding? What do you do when you think no one is watching? Would you pick up a penny from the floor and pocket, it or would you ask if someone dropped it? Do you follow through with your officers’ orders, as ridiculous as they may seem at times? How do you react when your crew sits and watches you do all the work without lifting a finger? What do you do when you make a mistake? How do you react when you are the butt of all your crew’s jokes? Do you get caught up in the negative firehouse banter? Do you get sucked into the blackhole of talking poorly about your “brothers and sisters”? This list is essentially endless, so add your own questions here and see how you would react.
Every day you report to work, you are being sized up by everyone around you. Your actions and reactions are how you will be remembered from crew to crew, from company to company. Your legacy will follow you until retirement and beyond. As the old saying goes, “Telephone, tell a friend, tell a firefighter.” There are no secrets in the firehouse. Your next assignment has already heard about you and already judged you prior to you reporting to work. Your legacy will speak for you; it’s up to you how you want it to speak to others.
Your work ethic, your attitude, your knowledge of the job, the questions you ask, the respect you show to others, the attention to detail. It’s what you do when you think no one is watching–these are examples of your legacy. Be known for all the right reasons, not the wrong ones. Don’t get me wrong: Everyone makes mistakes. It’s how you recover from them that adds or subtracts from how you will be remembered. Be the person who owns your mistakes and respond professionally.
Do not think of your legacy in a post-retirement time frame. Your legacy is an ongoing culmination of actions and reactions that are both past and present and will affect your future. Let’s use your future promotion as an example. If you have set yourself a positive legacy and are promoted, that legacy sticks with you. Imagine your legacy speaking for you on the day of your promotion. Are you going to have firefighters in line waiting to work with you, or is there a line of firefighters trying to find another assignment away from you? A separate article could be written about your legacy when you become an officer.
Surprisingly, most of your legacy will be formed in the first year. You will have a year to show your true colors because, undoubtedly, they will show themselves. You will be put in situations where you just can’t fake your way through them anymore. You are going to get tired of being the low guy or gal on the totem pole. You are simply going to be tired – and you should be. You are going to be bored cleaning the toilets, scrubbing the dishes, mopping the floors, and anything else you are still doing by yourself. You are going to get too comfortable, too soon and your mouth is going to get in the way. It’s in those moments where your true self will appear and where your legacy will strengthen or weaken.
Be true to yourself and your honor and keep fighting the urge to become lazy by losing sight of the legacy you would like to leave behind. Whatever temporary discomfort you may be feeling will pass. Change is inevitable, and your legacy will be strengthened by holding firm to what is right. Your career shouldn’t be about you but those around you. You swore to serve. Don’t get caught up with whom you are serving; it’s not just the people outside the bay doors.
It is extremely hard to explain to new firefighters just how fast their career will pass. By the time many figure this out, their career may be almost over. Unfortunately, recovering from a bad name or a bad legacy could take years-years of dedicated hard work; consistency; and, in many cases, a few apologies along the way. To undo years of a lackluster legacy is possible, but it will never be as good as it might have been if you would have started with this knowledge in your first year.
The following points are just a few ideas on how to help improve your legacy in your first year.
Be the first to volunteer
Do you want to start working on your legacy now? Be the first to volunteer for anything that needs to be done at the station, at training, or anywhere else your department will let you volunteer. Be careful and do not get too far over your head. I’m not talking about running for union president, yet. Keep it simple and within your lane but be first.
One of the most impactful examples I have seen of this was with a probationary firefighter at a hazmat training session. He was not a hazmat technician, but the drill called for a technician to do some work with level A equipment. Out of all the techs there that day, he was the first to volunteer. He had no idea what he was doing, but it didn’t matter to him. What mattered was his work ethic, his ability to openly volunteer and risk failure in front of others, his ability to make a difficult decision, his decision to not save face, and just maybe he understood what an impact it would have on a future generation of firefighters. On that day, his legacy strengthened.
This is still a very memorable and poignant moment about how seemingly inconspicuous decisions and actions will affect others in powerful ways. You have that ability in you now, but do you have the tenacity to do it? Sometimes the smallest decision will have the largest impact.
This one is relatively simple. Report to work as the same person day in and day out. Don’t be a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You will have a very hard time fitting in with a crew if you constantly come in angry one day and then are on cloud nine the next. This job is hard enough without others having to try to figure out who you are that day. Your legacy will be tarnished if you are not consistent.
We all have good days and bad days, and there will be many ups and downs in this career, just as there are at home. No one is going to get this right all the time, but if you can do this day in and day out throughout your career, your coworkers will thank you. If you can do this consistently, on the days that you are just not yourself your crew will know much more quickly and be more willing to lend a hand or an ear than if your emotions change on a dime.
If you notice your emotions are starting to get the better of you, it may be a sign you may want to start a conversation with your family doctor, set an appointment with your local Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if your department offers it, or speak with a mental health expert. Mental health in the fire service has come a long way in just a few short years. Talk with your department and see what it has to offer regarding mental health. Contact your union, too. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) has a list of resources for its members.
As silly as it sounds, ask a lot of questions, but learn fast. Keep in mind you just got done reading more than 500 pages of book material, drilled every day, and have everything relatively fresh in your mind. Your 30-year captain, however, may not have had the luxury of a fire academy class. Many senior officers learned by on-the-job training. Many have kept up with the times and science, but there are many who have not.
When you ask your questions, phrase them as though you are not putting the person on trial. That is one way to lose some hard-earned legacy points. By asking questions, you are showing interest. You are putting forth effort. You are building relationships with your crew. You are trying to put all the puzzle pieces together to round out what you learned in class. Simply put, people don’t know what you don’t know. If you don’t ask questions, your crew has no idea what you are or are not comfortable with. As many will try to deny it, we were all green at one time in our own careers, too.
One of the most important things about asking questions is finding people you trust. You will get those people who will be challenged by your questions. They may not know the answer and will be embarrassed to show you their weaknesses, or they may just not teach well. It’s okay. Find people you trust, who enjoy teaching, and who are willing to teach all firefighters regardless of years of service.
It goes a long way when a probationary firefighter starts the conversation and asks questions. If it is a good crew, the entire crew may join in and help make a day of training. One question will lead to another, to another, and the next thing you know, it’s already time for you to start cooking dinner!
Your learning curve ties directly back into “Ask questions.” Your learning curve is essentially straight up now. What you accomplished in your fire academy class is the bare bones state mandatory basics. Book smarts and street smarts are two different beasts, but put them together, and that is where the magic happens.
So how exactly does your learning curve tie into your legacy? How quickly you can learn something and then put what you learned into practice shows competence. Competence leads to trust. When your crew can trust you, then your legacy strengthens. Trust plays a very large role in your legacy, and it will follow you through your career. As you move through the ranks, you will need firefighters to trust you more than ever.
There are so many more aspects to setting your legacy. Take some time and do some self-reflection. Maybe you are a few years into your career and are realizing this article may be speaking to you. My hope is by reading this article, you can take the information to impact your career and those careers around you in positive ways to strengthen your department and the fire service as a whole.
Kyle Condra is a lieutenant with Carmel (IN) Fire Department Engine 346. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Managing Officer program and has an AAS degree in homeland security and public safety. He has a combined 24 years of service as both a volunteer and career firefighter. He can be reached at CFDFIRELT@gmail.com.