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The (nearly) 40-year-old rookie: A different experience the second time around

What I learned about myself – and the fire service – by attending rookie school two times, 20 years apart

Philip Clark Before and After.png

Philip Clark during rookie school in 2021.

I am a 38-year-old rookie, with nearly 20 years of experience. Allow me to explain.

I spent the majority of my fire service career in Ohio. I was well-trained, seasoned and appropriately certified through the state. Then, my family decided to move to North Carolina for better opportunities.

After much research and paperwork, I was informed that because I went through my fire classes in 2003, before Ohio was an International Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC) state, none of my classes would transfer over to North Carolina. Then, as luck would have it, I was offered my dream job – a full-time firefighter. The only catch was that I would have to retake all the fire classes.

So that’s how I got to be a 38-year-old rookie with nearly 20 years of experience.

What have I learned? I learned that fire school is A LOT harder, both physically and mentally, than I remembered. There is a substantial amount of scientific work that is required to get through the program. I learned there is a significant difference among generations from when I was younger. However, I think the most important thing that I learned is the importance of senior firefighters being dedicated to their craft and having the desire to continually improve their understanding of the fire service.

It’s science – and it’s a lot harder now

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Of course fire school is a lot harder now. You’re 20 years older than you were the first time.” But beyond the physical difficulty, there was an educational difference as well – fire behavior, flow paths, water mapping, thermal imaging, the list goes on and on. The first time through, as cliché as it sounds, we learned a lot of “putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.” We learned “big fire, big water.” We learned a lot of old school bread-and-butter operations. I came out thinking I knew most of what I needed to know about being a good firefighter.

I would like to think that I spent my next several years digging deep to further my understanding and improving my working knowledge of the fire service. I didn’t know it all, but I felt that I was up to date on the advances that we had made as a profession. However, I also know that not everyone has the training opportunities that I have had, and not everyone has the ability to continue their education.

If you are a senior firefighter, you owe it not only to yourself but also to your crew, your department and your family to take the initiative and further your education. Seek out the training opportunities that surround you. The fire service has changed since you went to fire school. Fires have changed, and so has our understanding of how they behave.

The generational gap is wider

In 2002, my home department made an effort to transition all of our members from the standard 36-hour “volunteer” certification to the “Firefighter II” professional certification. I was appointed to the department at just the right time, and I got to do all of my classes with the rest of the members. I learned a lot from them, and I felt that I was a better firefighter for it. I was lucky to get to be a new student in a classroom full of seasoned veterans, and learning from them as well as the instructors was a benefit that I could never replace.

The fire school of 2021 was much different. I found myself in a classroom full of “kids.” Most of them were born after I had already graduated high school, and only two of them were old enough have remembered 9/11 the day of the attack. There’s no Gen Z vs. boomer debate here; rather, I want to highlight their differences to bring to light the fact that both the old-timers and the younger guns have knowledge and skills to teach each other.

Thanks to modern-day technology, the younger generations are programed to multitask. This is a huge advantage that today’s student of firefighting has over generations past. They can go from one topic to the next or one evolution to the next without needing constant redirection. Older members might interpret their multitasking as a lack of interest or a show of disrespect. This simple truth is that most younger members are so used to being overly stimulated that the idea of doing just one thing at a time will lead to boredom, and ultimately, to a lack of interest in the topic.

The senior firefighters have a plethora of knowledge and experience to share with the rookie. The problem, as I have seen it, is that most of the seasoned firefighters get so frustrated with the rookies’ different style of learning and different personality style that they either can’t or won’t take the time to get on to their level and teach them.

Bottom line: As a rookie, your job is to learn. Do that without apology. Do not let others’ lack of motivation stifle your own. As a senior firefighter, your job is to teach. There is an old quote that says, “The best thing that an old firefighter can teach a young firefighter is how to become an old firefighter.” You have knowledge that the rookie needs. Take the time to make them better. It will benefit both of you.

Dedication to your craft is key

The most important thing that I learned through this journey is that you will only get as much out of the fire service as you are willing to put into it. I could have taken the hand I was dealt as a negative. So many times, I hear senior members complain about having to train, or saying that the command officers are expecting too much by asking for more days for training. I could have gone into my new rookie class with the mindset of someone who didn’t need to be there, and was only there to satisfy a paperwork driven bureaucracy. Instead, I looked at it as an opportunity. Sure, there were things for which I needed to refresh my knowledge, and there were even a few things that I didn’t remember learning the first time, but beyond that was the chance I had to experience a new rookie school with new instructors, new facilities and a new understanding of what is important.

When we started class, we went around the room and introduced ourselves – the standard who we are, where we are from, and what we hoped to accomplish after finishing the program. Imagine the looks I got from not only my fellow students, but also several of the instructors when they learned my background and why I was there. I realized early in the program that a few of us that had some … season on us had the ability to set the mood for the whole class. The younger members – the ones who had never been in the fire service, never ridden a fire truck, never felt the rush of adrenaline when the tones drop – were looking to us for guidance. If we were excited to learn and excited to work, the younger members followed suit. If we were grumpy and complacent, complaining about how hot it was or how tired we were, the whole class would soon be overwhelmed with misery. Remember that the next time you are at your station and the new member wants to pull hose or practice mask-up drills.

Each day I was in class was a new chance to learn and a chance to be a better firefighter. There were days that were hard. (Let’s not forget that my first rookie school was in late fall in northeast Ohio, and the most recent one was in summer in the middle of North Carolina.) There were days I was tired, dehydrated, sore and just plain exhausted.

On the days that I was on shift with my full-time department, I would go to class from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., and then go directly to work and finish out the rest of my 24-hour shift, only to return back to class at 8 the next morning to do it all again. I made the choice at the start of classes that I would not be negative. I would be dedicated to my craft. I would take each long, hot, draining day as a chance to be a better firefighter than I was the day before. I had the very best job in the world, and I was getting paid to be better at it!

A lifelong rookie

I write this not to brag on myself for completing rookie school twice nearly 20 years apart but rather as a reminder how quickly we as the veterans of the fire service can slide into complacency – and even down right laziness. We must stay vigilant to be a lifelong rookie. Passionately driving to know everything that we can about the job. Pushing ourselves harder and further than we want to so that we can get better.

I was given a new shot of excitement for the job by a group of nearly 20 teenagers who couldn’t wait to come back the next day and leave it all on the training ground for the chance to become tomorrow’s firefighters. Getting the chance to work alongside these young adults gave me the chance to decide how badly I wanted the job I had wanted for 20 years. Any time I thought about only giving 50 or 75%, I saw one of my classmates looking at me, and hoping that one day they too could have that job.

To the rookies: Keep learning, keep training and keep making yourself better. You will, one day sooner than you think, be passing your knowledge and experience on to the next group of rookies.

To the senior members: Never lose your passion for the job. Training is hard work, but so is firefighting. Spending a couple of hours with the new member explaining fire behavior can be draining, but not nearly as draining as attending a funeral for a fallen brother or sister who was caught in a flashover. Train your rookie well enough that they can take over your job. Your payment will be their success, and your success with be their training.

Philip Clark is a 20-plus-year veteran of the fire and emergency medical services, currently serving as a firefighter with the city of Lenoir, N.C.