New recruit: Steps to first-year success
Tips and strategies on how to handle and succeed while in the academy
Congratulations! You've just been selected to attend the next entry-level firefighter training academy, and you are justifiably excited at the prospects.
It seems like only yesterday, but it's now been 30 years since I opened the letter that informed me that I'd been hired and would be attending recruit school.
It's truly a great day when you learn that you'll be joining the men and women in one of the noblest professions in the world.
Take some time to bask in your good fortune, as your future prospects are truly bright. But this is just the first step in what will hopefully be a lifelong journey.
Firefighting is a team sport. Firefighting operations succeed when groups of firefighters execute a well-developed Incident Action Plan (IAP) under the leadership and guidance of an incident commander who uses the Incident Command System (ICS).
Entry-level firefighter training is where you learn the basic knowledge and skills necessary to be one of those firefighters. It's where you learn how to work as a member of a team to accomplish a tactical objective, such as advancing a hose line to the second floor to extinguish the fire. It is also where you and your team learn how to work in concert with other teams to achieve the goals of an IAP.
I've been in your position before, I've taught many recruit school classes, I've managed entry-level training programs, and along the way, I've been taking some good notes on what it takes to succeed in this first phase of firefighter training.
Making the commitment
We had a motto in my department concerning recruit school training: "the long days and short nights of recruit school."
Your instructors will have only a short period of time to teach the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully complete your state's certification requirements and prepare you for assignment to a fire station where you'll serve under one of their peers.
Every day will start early, finish late, and your personal time commitment will extend late into the evening and include time on the weekends as you study and prepare for the next week.
Take the time to go over that last paragraph and discuss it with the people close to you in your life, that is, your spouse or significant other and your children if you're a parent.
The last recruit school I was involved with lasted 16 weeks; it may be longer or shorter in other departments. That's a big time commitment for everyone involved, not just you.
Make sure that everyone involved understands the situation and what their roles will be until your training is completed. For example, your spouse will be taking on more of the parenting and household management because even when you are home you'll be doing homework, preparing your uniform and gear for the next day, and getting sleep.
Talk with your children to help them understand that there will be less "Mom" or "Dad" time from you until you finish your schooling. This is good primer for everyone as it prepares them to manage their lives during your tour of duty once you're assigned to a fire station, which in many departments is a 24- hour stretch.
Making the grade
Brush up on your study habits. The body of knowledge and skills for a firefighter continues to grow and now includes firefighting and EMS, as well as some hazardous materials and technical rescue knowledge.
The instructional methodology is also changing. Instead of relying totally on instructor-led classroom sessions to teach new information, many departments have entered the world of blended learning by using online course work in combination with instructor-led classroom sessions.
Others, especially smaller and more rural departments, rely totally upon online delivery so that they can maximize the use of precious instructor time during practical skills teaching sessions. Learn how your recruit school training is being delivered to better prepare yourself to learn from day one.
Putting your body to the test
The emergency service delivery world is a physically demanding one. The training that prepares you for entry into that world is even more demanding, particularly on practical training days.
On those days you will spend hours first learning how to properly use all of the tools of the trade and then applying this knowledge and skills to realistic firefighting, EMS, hazmat and tech rescue scenarios.
Muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance are equally important for success during recruit school training, so prepare to work for a period of 20 to 30 minutes doing both. Circuit training that incorporates weight training and aerobic training into the same session is ideal.
Eating right, working hard
Many departments use the body mass index to determine physical eligibility. Those starting recruit school have probably met their requirement for BMI, but you may be required to be at or below your hiring BMI to continue your employment.
You want to make a good first impression on your first day of recruit school? Don't show up looking like a contestant for the show, "The Biggest Loser."
If you do, you'll immediately become one of the training staff's "problem children" — a student who will require more time and attention than other students. Why? Because the percentage of students who successfully complete training programs is a very common performance benchmark for a department's training division. Thus, it's not in the training staff's best interests to just let you suffer the consequences and wash out.
You'll get plenty of physical activity during your training, so pay close attention to what you eat while in the training program. Too many nights of takeout pizza or hitting the all-you-can eat Chinese buffet on the way home and you might just eat yourself out of a job.
For a free BMI calculator, go to the National Institutes of Health's Heart, Lung and Blood Institute website.
Always making a good impression
For many organizations, recruit school is like a NFL training camp or spring training in baseball. While students are learning, as the organization's newest talent, they are also constantly being evaluated both formally and informally.
Before I became battalion chief and was teaching at recruit school, the battalion chiefs in the emergency operations division were always asking about which recruits were doing well and which were not.
That's because prior to the end of recruit school the battalion chiefs for the three shifts would have a draft day from the graduating class.
Your department may or may not have a similar process, but you cannot go wrong by approaching every day during recruit school as an opportunity to impress the scouts.
What they're looking for
Do you want to be a high draft choice? Here are some of the attributes I looked for when I was scouting the talent. If they were…
- Respectful to everyone, from their classmates to the instructors to visiting officers to the janitor who cleans the halls.
- Showing up every day and giving 110 percent regardless if it's live firefighting scenarios, ladder-carrying drills or working a decontamination station for hazmat training.
- Seeking out opportunities to help others, especially a classmate who is struggling.
- Taking responsibility for their own welfare and that of their classmates.
- Sharing equally in the workload and doesn't wait for someone to tell them that something needs to be done.
- Taking responsibility for their learning and learns from their mistakes.
- Modest and let their actions speak for themselves.