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Habits: A key to a safe firefighting career

A big piece of the safety puzzle is breaking your bad habits and keeping them from taking root in the recruits

I have to laugh when I hear complaints about the “kids these days” who are joining our ranks. Do we really think that when we were rookies, probies or whatever you call the recruits things were any different?

A good friend, Chief Walter Bell was the career chief of the New Rochelle (N.Y.) Fire Department starting in 1959. I truly enjoy talking to him about the good old days of his fire service career.

I find it very hard to believe that back in the late 50s new members who came in were greeted with, “Wow, you guys are perfect, just what we are looking for!” And I don’t doubt that when many of those who complain now about new members had quite a few senior members rolling their eyes when they first walked in the station.

I still remember Capt. Kennedy jumping on me when he thought I was questioning an order while flaking out a hose line for an interior attack. Although I wasn’t questioning him, let’s just say that the organizational structure of the fire department was crystal clear at the conclusion of the conversation.

I bring these items up because even if you grew up in a fire service family, none of us came into the fire service worth the sweat on the brow of the senior members of the firehouse. But, if you kept your eyes, ears and mind open, you could progress.

Learning how to do things the right way until they are instinctual is a big part of what we do. As recruits, the basics are (or should be) slowly ingrained into natural actions.

But sometimes we develop bad habits, habits that last much longer than they should and can be, at best awkward and at worst unsafe or deadly.

Our officers often talk about unteaching a habit or, worse yet, a viewed action. We can discuss safety issues all day long, but if our recruits see an unsafe action (particularly by a officer or senior member) how do we unteach that action?

As instructors, we know how strong visuals are at getting messages across; after all, a picture is worth a 1,000 words.

When I was a recruit we had a great instructor, Chief Tom Maloney. Tom had a way of getting into your head (even if he had to go through it).

And God help you if you showed up at the burn room door without your helmet strap fastened. Your helmet was going for a ride and you would have to leave the line (worse yet, the coveted nozzle) to retrieve it while someone else took your place.

But I didn’t learn my real lesson until my first interior attack as the nozzle firefighter. I was at the front door, awaiting the forcible entry team.

The nozzles bale had been knocked to the open position and when the line charged it started to move so I jumped on it. But, I didn’t have the strap on and lost my helmet.

And while I got my helmet, some very kind fellow firefighter took the nozzle and headed on in. I wear my chinstrap.

We want enthusiastic recruits; it’s good to have enthusiasm for the trade. But sometimes that enthusiasm turns into bad habits that need to be addressed quickly.

We all have bad habits and they can lead down much worse roads than just loosing the nozzle.

As leaders (official and unofficial), we need to help break these habits early on — both ours and other’s. Rather than complaining about the kids these days, make sure they have the safety habits that will turn them into wise veterans.

Learn how to make your department a safer place in Tom LaBelle’s FireRescue1 column, ‘The Butcher’s Bill.’ LaBelle provides tips, advice and opinions that balance accomplishing strategic objectives with making sure every firefighter goes home.