An Open Letter to My 19 -Year-Old Rookie Firefighter Self, Written 28 Years Later
You are about to experience something very special. You have been chosen to be part of a very small and unique group of individuals who get to do amazing work. Don’t ever take it for granted. Please, always be grateful for this opportunity. Never forget how excited you are today. You are now part of a family that will mean as much to you as your very own. You are only 19 years old, and your life is about to change forever.
Learn everything you can. Spend as much time as you can spare training, drilling, and soaking up every bit of knowledge available. Enroll in every workshop, seminar, and training session that is available. Attend FDIC every year. Even if you have to pay for some of the training and travel expenses out of your own pocket, just do it. No excuses. Gain every certification that becomes available. Do it while you’re young.
Get a college degree. Do it now. Don’t wait until you’re in your 30s, with a family and lots of other responsibilities there’s no better time than now. Get your butt in school. Trust me, you will be so glad you did this.
Learn the traditions and history of your fire department. Ask questions. Find out why we do the things that we do. Learn the history of the American fire service. Don’t ever forget that you are now part of something far bigger than yourself.
When a senior firefighter takes some time out to show you something, listen to everything they say. Don’t ever tell them you already know it. If they are taking their time to teach you something, give them the respect they deserve. Let them teach you. Someday these guys will all be gone. Learn everything you can from them while they are still here. Thank them for showing an interest in you.
Get your hands on every piece of equipment in your station. Learn your apparatus inside and out. Know every piece of equipment in every compartment. Practice with it .Put your hands on it. Ask questions about it. Get proficient. Do it over and over until you can do it blindfolded.
Don’t gossip. When the conversation starts turning negative at the kitchen table, get up and leave. Don’t get drawn into firehouse drama. You don’t have to be controversial, or adversarial; just walk away. Don’t waste your career talking about other people and complaining.
Have a good attitude. Recognize that you choose your attitude. Don’t let unhappy or disgruntled firefighters influence your attitude. Each time you walk into the fire station, you get to decide to be positive, no one else. It is absolutely your choice.
Realize that you’re going to have some bad leaders. Take the time to try to find some of the positive attributes that they may possibly have. Make a mental note of the things that they do wrong, and make a promise to yourself that you never repeat this behavior. Someday, you may get the opportunity to lead. Believe it or not, these bad leaders are teaching you as much as the good ones.
Read. Get your hands on every textbook, magazine, workbook, owners manual, and any other available information to learn everything you can about the fire service. This business of ours is only going to grow, change, and get more complicated over time. You need to master this information. Don’t wait until you’ve been on the fire department 15 or 20 years to start reading.
Although you are thin, fit, and in the best shape of your life, you may not stay that way. Physical fitness is just going to get harder and harder as you get older. My advice to you is to start a physical fitness regimen now. Watch what you eat. Please don’t find yourself 3/4 of the way into your career overweight, weak, and unable to do the job.
Wear your SCBA and wash your PPE. Tremendous knowledge about the link between firefighters and cancer will be gained over the next few decades. Protect yourself.
Work hard. Show up early. Don’t have to be asked to do anything. If you see something that needs done, jump in and start doing it. Don’t leave until one hundred percent of the work is completed. Gain a reputation early as a hard worker, and maintain that through your entire career.
Don’t be afraid to talk to someone if you have a call that is bothering you. You are going to see some tough stuff. Getting help won’t make you seem weak or soft. Between work stress and outside issues such as divorce and financial strain, you may get close to your breaking point. Seek out resources to get the counseling you may need.
Keep your ego in check. You may have the opportunity to get promoted, receive recognition, and even win awards. This is all going to be great, but don’t let it inflate your ego. Be humble.
Be kind. Be nice to everyone on the department, show compassion to victims of fires, as well as your EMS patients. Listen more than you talk. Be warm to others. Recognize that your fellow firefighters may be struggling with issues outside of the department. Always make time for them. Just be nice.
Everything you do should be in the best interest of your community. Recognize that you have chosen to live a life of service. This is truly service above self. This isn’t about you. This is about those you serve. And son, you better never, ever forget it.
Finally, enjoy every minute of it. It’s going to go so fast. It’s going to be a blur. Stop and enjoy it. Realize how damn lucky you are to put on that uniform, how lucky you are to pin that badge on your shirt. This is going to be a temporary moment in time, and you will be cutting the cake at your retirement party before you know it. Don’t take one minute of it for granted.
Finally, share information. Take every rookie under your wing. Teach them everything you know. Set an example for them. Show them the type of character it takes to do this job and do it well. Conduct yourself with integrity at all times. Never forget that these young firefighters are watching you and modeling your behavior.
And lastly, be safe. Wear your PPE on every call. Always buckle your seatbelt. Look out for others. Make the safety of yourself and your fellow firefighters your number one priority.
A much smarter, and 28-year-older firefighter who has learned many of these lessons the hard way.
Chief Joe Kitchen
Joseph Kitchen, OFC, is the Chief of the Bath Twp. Fire Dept. (Lima, Ohio.) He began his career in 1990 and has served as fire chief since 2002. He holds degrees in EMS and fire science, and in 2012 was named “Fire Officer of the Year” by the Ohio Dept. of Public Safety. Follow Chief Kitchen on Twitter @chiefjoekitchen and visit his department’s website at www.bathtwpfd.com