I recently reviewed the “25 Things Probationary Firefighters Should Know and Do” in order to build a great firefighter reputation, created by fire service leaders Frank Viscuso (retired Deputy Chief, Town of Kearny Fire Department) and Michael Terpak (retired Deputy Chief, Jersey City Fire Department). I’ve seen similar lists that frequently address the probationary firefighter, but what about the rest of us? Shouldn’t there be a similar list for non-probationary firefighters, medics, officers, and chief officers? Shouldn’t we all be taking steps to build a reputation to be proud of?
The influence you have on your reputation begins with you, whether you’re a probationary firefighter (PF) or higher ranking firefighter, and often starts before you achieve PF status. You leave an impression on each person you interact with from the person receiving your employment application, to the interview panel members, to the training academy instructor cadre, and to your peers and co-workers. You will quickly be recognized for what you bring to the table and what you do not bring to the table.
As an officer, one thing I used to remind new employees about was that they are in control of their reputation. They can either build the reputation they want for themselves or allow others to create it for them, based on how they are perceived by others. Given that choice, who would you rather be in control of your reputation?
In the fire service, we often place a significant amount of time and attention on the PF, as we should. We want them to be successful by starting them out on the right path, early in their career. We want to build a trusting relationship with them in which to be confident in their knowledge, skills, and abilities and confident in their ability to serve the public and to have the backs of their Brother and Sister firefighters. We want to know they have what it takes to do the work of those that came before them and to earn their right to be a firefighter. Put another way; earn the privilege to work alongside other established firefighters, as some in the fire station might see it.
When the new PF gets assigned to a station, it’s often received with mixed reviews from the start. The PF’s reputation may have already superseded them based on what the crew knows or heard (rumors), good, bad, or indifferent. The crew knows they will have more work to do in training up the PF, which is balanced with the fact that in return the PF will take on much of the fire station grunt work, giving the firefighters a bit of a break from the daily grind (housework, etc.). What the PF does in the days, weeks, and months ahead will influence the crews impression of him/her and ultimately goes toward building a good reputation for the PF and earning their respect, or not. Winning over the crew is the PF’s first step in selling their great reputation.
As I mentioned above, you can either create the reputation you want for yourself or let others create it for you. Either way, it has staying power and can influence the rest of your career and how you are perceived by others. Nevertheless, building a reputation you can be proud of comes with hard work, consistency, and time. Some established firefighters can and do forget this along the way. Therefore, it’s important to emphasize that reputation building should not stop once full firefighter status is achieved. It should be an ongoing and dynamic process.
Success in building great reputations is a two-way street. As we build our individual reputations we must interact with others. Their perception of you is your reputation litmus test for success.
Now, let’s take a moment to review Chief Viscuso and Chief Terpak’s “25 Things Probationary Firefighters Should Know and Do” in order to build a great reputation:
The list above may be intended for the PF, but with few exceptions, it equally serves the non-probationary firefighters, senior firefighters, medics, and officers. I’ve placed an asterisk next to the items above that are applicable for all fire service personnel.
Those of us who are in the PF status or who have moved beyond their PF status are encouraged to review the list and to reflect on their current reputation. Is it great? Are you proud of it? Or, is there still room for improvement? If you are meeting the standards of the list, well done! Keep up the good work. If not, recommit and aspire for more for yourself and for those you work for and alongside. They are counting on you. You are the future of your department, and those that came before you want to place that future in good hands.
We’re all in this together and our success relies on each member of the team doing their part. For those above the level of PF, I would add the following responsibilities to the list, which coincide with the numbered items above:
Item 4, Be a respectful senior firefighter or medic who positively influences and inspires others through your actions, not your position. As an officer, know your senior firefighter. This person is a leader among the firefighters and can influence for better or worse. Build a working relationship with the senior or informal leader to help ensure they are working with you, not against you.
Item 7, Be a mentor.
Item 11, Answer questions, and listen more than you speak.
Item 14, Be accepting, especially of differences.
Item 16, Respect your Youngers. Respect is a two-way street.
Item 19, Look for stress in others, question, and provide the necessary support for their wellbeing. You may recognize their stress before they do.
Often, it’s the PF we focus on, because those that came before have paid their dues. But great reputations come with hard work, consistency, and time. Each of us must work to maintain great reputations we can be proud of. It doesn’t start and stop at the PF level. The lists above are minimum standards, so there is always room for self-improvement. Building a great reputation, like becoming a great firefighter, is a never ending process. You’ll never be perfect, but keep striving for perfection.
To quote Benjamin Franklin, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” If you’re just starting out or are already established in the fire service, be mindful of the kind of reputation you want or have. Take each opportunity to continually build upon your reputation. Reputation is perception and perception is everything. Work to allow your reputation to supersede you in a way that makes you proud. Put another way, be proud of who you are to others...That’s your reputation!
Thank you to Chief Viscuso and Chief Terpak for their leadership and guidance.
NICK J. SALAMEH is a 36 year veteran of the fire service. He was a Fire/Emergency Medical Services Captain II and previous Training Program Manager for the Arlington County, VA Fire Department, with which he served 31 years. He is a former Chair of the Northern Virginia Fire Departments Training Committee and was a former volunteer firefighter for the Fairfax County, VA Fire and Rescue Department, Bailey’s Crossroads Fire Station 10. Nick is a contributor to Fire Engineering www.fireengineering.com and Stop Believing Start Knowing (SBSK), https://www.facebook.com/StopBelievingStartKnowing/.