Basic Rules for Fire House Living
By Tony Vitalie
After 20 years in the fire service I have had the pleasure of working and living with a wide variety of personalities. I've learned something from each and every individual that I've had the opportunity to work with, some through positive examples and some by way of negative examples.
In the process I’ve also learned a great deal about myself and about this unique group dynamic. This is the kind of thing one cannot learn in a class room or academy. My time in school and even my four years of study in Psychology in no way prepared me for Firehouse living. In my opinion all retired Firefighters should be given an honorary PhD in Psychology.
Every Firehouse has its own unique dynamic and personality. As unique as they all are, there are some universal truths that I believe to hold true regardless of where you might end up working and living. Remember that unlike other professions, Firefighters are subject to not only a unique and demanding work environment, they are also subject to unique living conditions, as working together and living together are one in the same for Firefighters. This unique environment combined with our job duties create the need for understanding human behavior and respecting those we work and live side by side with like no other profession in the world.
What I feel best prepares one for Firehouse living is growing up in a large dysfunctional family, because that’s what you can expect at the firehouse. Only children and those who always got to choose their friends and who they associated with may have a harder time then those who grew up in a crowded house, had to sleep 5 to a bed and share everything with siblings they had a love hate relationship with but were forced to live and get along with in very close quarters.
Below are a few basics that every Firefighter should do their best to adhere to. The list below are some things that I've learned from some of the most universally liked and respected Firefighters I've ever had the pleasure of working with, as well as some of the least liked and most controversial Firefighters I have been fortunate enough to know and work with. Many are common sense but common sense is not all that common and certainly not always commonly practiced. Learning the rules of conduct is easy. The hard part is identifying when you yourself are breaking these rules. Self awareness and understanding how you are perceived by others is the key.
- Know your job.
- Be able to perform your job.
- Get and stay fit.
- Enjoy your work and never forget that you have the greatest job in the world.
- Never take your job or paycheck for granted.
- Work hard when there’s work to be done.
- Relax when it’s time to relax (Unless you’re on probation, then study)
- Give 100%, but don’t expect everyone else to.
- Always lead by example, no matter what your rank.
- Know your place and stay there at all times.
- Know your own boundaries and keep them consistent.
- Know your co-workers boundaries and respect them at all times.
- Exercise tolerance.
- Understand that no one is perfect, especially you.
- At the very least, accept your co-workers differences, but better yet, learn to value and appreciate those differences.
- Understand that everyone brings something to the table and learn to value it, as small as that something may seem to you.
- Be a good roommate. (I could write 1001 bullet points on what this means. Use common sense).
- Maintain a “what’s mine is yours” attitude, knowing that not everyone else will share that same attitude.
- Don't play favorites. Treat everyone equally.
- Be flexible and adaptable.
- Be consistent and predictable.
- Don't alienate.
- Don't polarize or allow yourself to be effected by polarizing personalities. (Defined: One who creates an “Us vs them”, or “Us vs him/her” environment. A polarizing personality will try to draw you to their side and turn you against others, they create alliances within a group that destroy the group as a whole).
- Don't burn bridges. Not because you may someday need to cross them to get where you want to go, but because it pollutes the air you breathe and the water you drink.
- Don't step on anyone in order to get to the top.
- Don't kiss anyone's ass in order to get to the top.
- Know that ALL walls have ears and very big mouths.
- Know your audience.
- Understand the difference between appropriate humorous banter and pranks, and harassment.
- Think before you speak.
- Be direct and straightforward.
- When in doubt, shut your trap. (You are more likely to lose sleep, friends, someone’s respect or even your job because of something you said, rather than something you did not say).
- Treat everyone with respect whether they are in the room or not.
- Laugh at yourself daily.
- Be humble.
- Don’t be a deadbeat. Repay your debts quickly and completely, whether it be a shift trade, money owed or simply returning a favor.
- Don’t be a Bully.
- Don’t be a “Yes man”. (Have a spine and stand up for what’s right).
- Don’t be a “No man”. (Don’t unnecessarily rain on anyone’s parade).
- Don’t be a “Ya, But man”. (Don’t play devil’s advocate or take the other side of every argument or discussion).
- Don’t manipulate situations or stir the pot.
- Take criticism, whether it is constructive or not.
- Give only constructive criticism, and only when it is appropriate and your place to do so.
- Be involved (Take part in department functions, whenever you can).
- Be positive even when you’re not feeling it.
- Be aware of negativity disguised as positivity and avoid contributing to it.
- Be competitive, but always play fair and be a good sport.
- Care about what others think of you, but don't be obsessed with it.
- Realize that not everyone will like you and they won’t necessarily need a reason.
- Understand that you represent your department, your profession and yourself both on and off duty.
- Don’t abuse sick time or any part of “the system”.
- Realize that you will not like everyone you are forced to work with, but understand at the very least, you need to create and maintain a professional working relationship with them.
- Grow thick skin.
- Know that NOT everyone will have thick skin and interact accordingly.
- Know that it is NOT better to be hated for who you are then loved for who you are not, because if you are hated for who you are, perhaps you are an asshole and need to re-evaluate the way you treat others. In other words, don't be yourself, if being yourself breaks the above basic rules of Firehouse conduct. Instead, re-invent yourself. It’s never too late to do so.
If you have broken any of these basic rules in the course of your career, understand that you can always do the following.
- Re-learn your job, improve your work ethic and find happiness in your work place.
- Make amends and rebuild bridges, long before you ever need to cross them.
- Get over yourself.
- Find humility.
- Exercise tolerance and treat everyone with respect from this day forward.