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Navigating the "Awkward Years"

Let me start by laying out a disclaimer. There is absolutely no substitute for experience. Period. None. Taking calls, going to jobs, and getting dirty is the only true way to ever really master this craft. We must see, do, and sometimes stumble to get better. Now here is my caveat to the above statement: if we wish to grow and develop in this career, we cannot sit by and just wait for fires. We must seek additional knowledge and information to help supplement that lack of experience.

Our modern-day American fire service does two things phenomenally well. First, we train our new personnel relentlessly to ensure they are provided with a solid foundation for a safe career. Second, we preach and stress the importance of strong leadership for ranking officers and the proverbial “senior man.” But where we seem to do a sub-par job is 1) preparing our members to take leadership and senior roles and 2) giving them appropriate guidance on how to do it.

The first few years of our career are critical to our long-term success, and few would say otherwise. But what if the most important stage of our career is really years two through seven, three through six, etc.? When the initial burst of excitement about this job starts to rescind. When we are not the newest guys at the firehouse anymore and the focus of trainings shifts away from us to them? How do we navigate these “awkward years” of our career that will ultimately define us? How do we capitalize on the little bit of knowledge and experience we have gained thus far and mold it into the next step of our career? 

We must strive every day to get better with personal aspirations and professional goals to become leaders within the organization. Some have a natural gifted ability that when coupled with experience and the associated wisdom allows them to evolve to be excellent leaders. Others will have to work tirelessly to develop the knowledge, skills, and ability required to step into leadership roles. Some will simply stay status quo. The passion that propelled them through rookie school may recede. For them showing up to the firehouse will slowly turn into “having to go to work” or viewed as just collecting a paycheck. The timeframe for this demise can vary.  Some may reach it much sooner than others: maybe it’s year two, or three, or seven!  Who knows? The drive to be better and learn every day may be replaced with real life troubles: bills, family, stress, complacency, a second job… all the factors away from work that can consume our civilian lives. For those who choose this path, there is nothing wrong with being an average player. Not everyone’s life is centered on the firehouse; and that’s fine. If we strive for continuous growth, we must seek to understand these individuals and use that understanding to guide our own path.

How we navigate the “awkward years” of our career will define us as firefighters. Those of us who want to get better won’t settle for waiting passively for experience to come and find us. Let’s face it; it isn’t coming, at least not as quickly as we would like it to. Today’s generation of firefighting is different. The reality is we just don’t fight as much fire as they used to in the late 70s, 80s or early 90s. So, we must seek out knowledge at every possible chance to try and supplement our lack of experience. What does that look like?

So, you have reached a point that you know where everything is and how it is used on the apparatus. Awesome, congrats, that’s week one goals and objectives for everyone in the fire service. Don’t let this be your stopping point. What have you done since then? Start to learn the whys of this job. Work to develop into a self-motivated, critically thinking firefighter - not because it’s the marker of being good at this job, but because it’s part of being a professional firefighter and it is one of the only things we can control.

Read the studies and articles. Seek out H.O.T (hands on training) classes. Attend local conferences which are readily available and affordable. Watch the plethora of videos available online and on social media. Train, train, and train some more! Why does the mechanical advantage of each part of the halligan matter? Why is it important to understand how my nozzle manipulates air inside a structure? What is UL really trying to say in that study and how does it truly apply to us? What exactly is a magneto on a chain saw and how does it work? Read the manuals! Develop station trainings, apparatus inventory sheets, station orientation booklets. Doing these things will not only help solidify your knowledge, but it will help others around you and benefit your organization. Any time we can encourage others to get active in learning with us; whether it is done directly, like participating in group trainings or passively, such as creating resource manuals, we shift the focus away from bettering ourselves to bettering the whole team.

Do something! Do anything that helps you to progress! Stop going through the motions on every alarm drop and EMS call. Start asking yourself: what if and what’s next? Challenge yourself and those around you to move forward. Seek out others: someone to teach the basics to, someone to push you every day, and that someone you strive to emulate and then learn from each of them.

Find and follow your mentors! Those who will help make you that firefighter, friend, parent, and person you aspire to be. Individuals like Mike Wall (Lt. Huber Heights FD), Josh Augustine (BC Washington Township FD), Ron Kern (Ret. BC Washington Township FD), Cory Yutzy (FF Columbus Fire), Austin Kerns (Lt. Columbus Fire), and Steve Chesshir (Lt. Columbus Fire). Learn every possible thing you can from them and use them as motivation. Engage people outside of your workplace. Different points of views and experience are one of the most beneficial things this job has to offer. What are those individuals doing right? What are they doing during their down time? How are they still pushing to get better?  How do they treat people? Lean on each other to build each other up.

Been a while since you went to a fire? Join the club. Call your buddies when they make a fire or any serious call and ask every detail. What did you see? Hear? Feel? How were conditions? Did you make a push? Did you get good lift from that vent h***? What did you learn and what could you have done differently? Did you perform a cricothyrotomy last shift? How did it go? Information that may seem mundane to them can be invaluable to you.

Unfortunately, nothing in the fire service is black and white. There is no perfect step-by-step manual or blueprint that works for everyone. The fact of the matter is that each one of our career paths is just as dynamic and ever changing as every emergency we respond to. I would be lying to you if I said that I don’t bump my head every day at work. I stumble far more often than I run. We will all have days when things don’t go just right, the recliner is just too inviting and yes, we all reach some point of mental or physical fatigue.  I wish I could tell you exactly how to become that same company officer that you aspired to be as a rookie or that senior man who guided you when you needed it the most; but sad to say, I can’t. However, if we strive to better ourselves every day; continue to learn and hone our craft; take pride in the fact that we are professionals; try to pay it forward to the next guy; and never forget where we came from, perhaps navigating those “awkward years” won’t be as daunting as they may appear at first glance.

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