5 habits of successful probationary firefighters

Tips for new firefighters looking to make their mark on the crew


By Ryan Crawfis

So you’re about to walk through the firehouse door for your first shift. Or perhaps you’ve been on the job for a few months and want to know what you can do to stand out in a positive way to your crew and bosses.

Your probationary period can set the tone for the rest of your career. Now is the time to build your reputation as a hard worker who is ready to learn. You’ll make mistakes, we all do. In fact, make as many mistakes as you can; this means you are learning. You know who doesn’t make mistakes? Firefighters who hang back and are hesitant to learn and grow. Don’t be that firefighter.

Firefigher helmets are lined up during graduation ceremonies for the recruit class of the Orange County Fire Rescue Department at Valencia College Performing Arts Center on Friday, December 14, 2018. (Photo/Stephen M. Dowell of the Orlando Sentinel)
Firefigher helmets are lined up during graduation ceremonies for the recruit class of the Orange County Fire Rescue Department at Valencia College Performing Arts Center on Friday, December 14, 2018. (Photo/Stephen M. Dowell of the Orlando Sentinel)

Buckle-up, you only get one first year on the job, and it’s time to get to work!

1. Arrive early, very early

For your first year, arriving 30 minutes early is on time, arriving 15 minutes early is late, and actually being late is unacceptable. Set the tone for the day. Let your crew know that you value process and preparation by arriving at least 30 minutes early for your shift. Both the oncoming and off-going crew will take notice of your punctuality.

Use this time wisely, quietly start checking out equipment, start the coffee, and bring in the newspaper. Now is NOT the time to sit down at the kitchen table and relax with the senior firefighters catching up at shift change. There will be plenty of opportunities in your career to sit at the kitchen table with the crew, just not today (or the next 364 days). 

Ideally, you want to be the first-arriving member of your crew, and you may need to tailor the 30-minute rule to your situation. If your lieutenant usually arrives 30 minutes early, your goal should be 45 minutes prior to shift.

2. Work hard, and be seen doing it!

One of the most successful probies I ever worked with was not only a hard worker, but a smart worker! Let’s call him “Jimmy.”

Jimmy structured all the tasks that needed to be done for the day in an order that maximized their visibility. When an engine company went out on a detail, this presented a perfect opportunity to clean the bay floor. When do you think Jimmy did this? After the engine drove away, in the bay, all by himself? No way! He would choose another task that was visible to senior firefighters at the time, such as vacuuming the dayroom or offices. He would finish those tasks just in time to be observed spraying off and scrubbing the bay floor as the engine company pulled back into the bay. The crew would step off the engine, onto a sparkling floor, and know exactly who to thank! In reality, if Jimmy was not seen by the crew doing these things, his actions would probably go unnoticed during the hustle and bustle of the workday. However, since Jimmy consistently made a special effort to be visible, he acquired a deserving reputation of being one of the best workers.

3. Look your best

In the fire service, appearances matter. You not only want to inspire confidence from the general public, but you want to present yourself in a way that makes your crew believe in you as well.

Pay attention to the fit of your clothes. Perhaps you have a unique body type and the uniform shirt you select fits your wide shoulders great, but the short sleeves flare out and go below your elbows. This may have been OK in 1997, but today it just looks sloppy. If your department does not offer uniform tailoring, make sure to take the time to get this done outside of work. A professionally fitted uniform is non-negotiable. 

I worked with a guy that always had the above-mentioned defect in uniform fit. He looked like a little kid playing dress up in his dad's uniform. He was a solid paramedic and worked as a part-timer for a number of agencies, but was never able to break in full-time. I’m guessing his sloppy appearance was a contributing factor.

4. Listen more than you speak

Your probationary year is about two things: demonstrating your work ethic and learning as much as you can. Neither one requires excessive levels of speaking or opinion sharing. The exception to this rule is ask questions, ask questions, ask questions. This shows that you care and are engaged in the task at hand. Ask questions, but unless something seems unsafe, keep your opinions to yourself.

There may be some latitude to this rule once you are a few months into your assignment and have built strong relationships with your bosses. Learn to read the room. Some bosses are intellectually curious and open to new ways of doing things. Other bosses still operate in the 1940s and consider SCBAs the death of the fire service.

If you think you have something valuable to share, work with your boss one-on-one. Always start with asking questions and showing a willingness to learn. From there you could share something you’ve learned, such as “I watched a lecture from Phoenix about a study they were doing on tactic Y, which resulted in X, what would happen if we did it that way?” Using this communication strategy not only shows you’re retaining the knowledge that your department is providing, but that you’re taking initiative to build upon that knowledge and improve your practice as a firefighter.

5. Find a mentor

One of your best resources is going to be your coworkers with 1-3 years on the job. Not long ago, they were on probation just like you. The growing pains are still fresh in their mind, and they will be able to guide you through yours.

My first week at a new department, a guy with about a year on pulled me aside and said “Captain Smith (who I had never met) is coming back from a meeting in 20 minutes -- his thing is floors. He goes ballistic if there’s oil smudges or boot prints on the bay floor.”

Armed with this knowledge I aggressively started degreasing and scrubbing the oil-stained and muddy boot tracked floors of the bay. When Captain Smith arrived, I shook his hand and introduced myself. Immediately I tracked his gaze going from my eyes to the bay floors behind me, scanning them east to west. Suddenly, a big smile grew across his face and he said, “nice to meet you” and proceeded to head to his office. Thanks to my “big brother,” I was able to prioritize my tasks for the day in a way that made an excellent first impression.

One final tip: Since you’ve made it this far, I’ll reward you with a little secret: These five habits are not exclusive to probationary firefighters. In fact, these are habits that you will need to carry with you throughout your career. Probation simply serves as a means to build this foundation.

I wish you a long and safe career.

Editor’s Note: What tips do you have for probies? Share them in the comments below.  

[Read next: Your first year as a probationary firefighter: 4 keys to success]

About the Author

Ryan Crawfis, MBA, is a former career firefighter turned writer and consultant. His fire career started in the Metro Detroit area where he worked in a variety of environments. His writing interests include the fire service, business, politics and real estate. Crawfis holds an MBA from Western Governors University, a bachelor’s degree in healthcare management, and has completed post-graduate coursework at Harvard University through Harvard Extension School (HES). Connect with Crawfis via email.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2020 Fire Chief. All rights reserved.