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When does your trial period really end?

To me, the true test of who you are as a firefighter comes after you get that badge


(Photo/Los Angeles County Fire Department)

By Scott Ziegler

At the end of this month I will be closing out my first year with the Detroit Fire Department, ending what we call the “trial period” (same as probationary period).

This will result in one of two things: I will either receive my badge and become a confirmed member of what I see as the greatest brotherhood on Earth, or my trial period will be extended for further training and evaluation.

I am hoping for the badge, but that will be decided by my lieutenant and the senior members of my firehouse. But if I get my badge, what will that really mean? Does my trial period really stop here? Is there a line in the road that you walk across and suddenly everything changes? Since I am so close to this juncture in my career, I have been giving this a lot of thought. Maybe I am writing this as a reminder to myself on how I should conduct myself after April 28.

Having served in the fire service for the past 11 years, I have bounced around to a few different departments. The ultimate goal has always been to get to where I am at today and stay here for at least 25 years. But, I feel that the path I took to get here has left me with a great amount of blessings. Among them includes a great perspective on being the junior member of a crew. You see, the longest period of time I have spent with one department was five years.

They say the first five years of a child’s life is the most crucial. In those years, the foundation for the rest of the child’s life is established. I believe that to be true in the fire service as well. So for me, I have spent 11 years as a junior member, starting over with each new fire department I went to, never actually passing that five-year mark before leaving for a different department. Like I said, I think it has left me with a great perspective on the subject. Maybe you will agree with me.

So what does it mean to be a trialman and when does the trial period end?

The trial period is meant to be spent learning and proving yourself. Learning from your senior men, and bosses and proving that you are a worker to those same people. You are the first to show up in the morning, and the last to go to bed at night. You are the last to sit down at the dinner table, and the first to get up to start cleaning. Your job around the firehouse is ... well, it’s everything. You make the coffee, you take out the trash, you do the dishes, you mop the floors, scrub the toilets, raise and lower the flag. If it needs to be done, it is your job.

Should a senior member beat you to one of these tasks, and you see it, you had better do whatever it takes to get them to stop so you can take over. You should also be doing things to make your firehouse better. Little projects to make your mark on the house. Meanwhile, you are being taught things like paperwork, cooking, the streets in your district, how to drive, pump, and operate any equipment your company has, and much more.

At a fire, you should be in your boss or senior man’s pocket. If they come to a sudden stop, you should be running into them. In a fire you should always have the pipe, listening to your boss‘s leadership and not stopping until the fire is out. During overhaul, you had better be outworking anyone on that scene. And when that’s all over with, you better be draining and reloading line first. You are there to learn, and prove to the guys, that you are a hard worker and willing to learn from them.

If for the duration of your time as a trial or probationary firefighter, you do all of these things, you shouldn’t have an issue being accepted into the brotherhood, and receiving your badge and/or confirmation. But does it stop there? Should it? Do you come in the next day with that bright shiny badge on your chest and just cease all previous activities? You are in now, you have the badge, union protection, and there are no more evaluation sheets being filled out on your behalf every morning.

So why not become a flop and drop the trialman show? Ill tell you why. Because your trial period NEVER actually ends.

Or at least it shouldn’t in your mind. To me, the true test of who you are as a firefighter comes after you get that badge. Do you show up early still? Do you still get the chores done before the senior members have a chance to do them? Do you still make sure that your boss doesn‘t need to lift a finger at the house? Are you still outworking or trying to outwork everyone at fires? Are you still looking to the senior members for guidance and learning from them? Are you still trying to prove to the guys that you are there to not only work hard, but do a good job as well?

Why should getting your badge or completing probation mean that you don‘t do those things anymore? It doesn’t. It only means that you are now in, and you have to be self-motivated. You have to still want to be that firefighter.

Sure, things may be a bit more relaxed for you — and maybe you will get a bit more rest throughout your shift — but, in my opinion, you still have years of learning and proving yourself ahead of you. The guys are always going to be judging you.

My current boss and a senior member of my last fire department have both said something along these lines to me, and it stuck both times:

“Do you want to be the guy that everyone is happy to see come through the firehouse doors in the morning, or the guy that people scoff at when they see your name on the daily lineup, and hope you put in for a transfer on the next list?”

I know what my choice is.

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