Rookies aren’t servants: Go train them

It’s our responsibility to mold and train new firefighters in every aspect of the job, because failure to perform has dire consequences


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By Adam Parkhurst, MA, EMT-P

The first year of a firefighter’s career defines who they will be for the next 30 years. This is where they develop their skill set and show how seriously they take the job. We train them and push them to be good at what they do; or at least this is the theory.

I have heard people say that “rookies are paid from the neck down.” I believe that our perception of what a rookie’s responsibilities are is off base.

We put the burden on rookies to show up every day and prove to us who they are, when actually it is as much our responsibility to show up every day and teach them who we want them to be. (Photo/Adam Parkhurst)
We put the burden on rookies to show up every day and prove to us who they are, when actually it is as much our responsibility to show up every day and teach them who we want them to be. (Photo/Adam Parkhurst)

The new firefighter often becomes the station janitor (and sometimes verbal punching bag), picking up all of the jobs that we find tedious or simply don’t want to do. We let them wash and sort our laundry, clean our dishes and toilets, and wash our fire trucks. We want them to be the first awake and the last asleep and the station to be in tip-top shape when they leave.

We have convinced ourselves that this shows how dedicated they are to the department and their jobs. Their ability to clean a toilet translates directly into their ability to perform other jobs well. It’s attention to details, right?

Now, I don’t want anyone to read this and think that I don’t believe those things are important, or that new firefighters should not have to show that they are willing to complete those tasks well, or that I don’t think a clean station and clean apparatus are a necessity. I do, however, think we put the burden on rookies to show up every day and prove to us who they are, when actually it is as much our responsibility to show up every day and teach them who we want them to be.

Rookie books: form over function?

I’ve fallen for the trap; the comfortable recliner on a Sunday morning called my name and I surrendered. I sat while the new firefighter also sat, staring at a set of protocols and a district map. This was his training for the day, learn the protocols and the streets; there will be a test. And there he sat, all day, staring at those pieces of paper. Who failed who? The new guy did what he knew he could do, he sat with material in hand and studied. All while there was a whole bay full of apparatus, training mannequins, bunker gear, hand tools, rope, saws, a roof simulator, hose, ladders – all neatly tucked away while the new firefighter sat and stared at paper, taking regular breaks to fold laundry and wash dishes.

So again, I ask, who failed whom? The new guy was doing exactly what he was told to do, and we were teaching him that his ability to clean a fire station was more important than his ability to perform his job skillfully.

So how should we train new firefighters? I would bet that your department uses something like a rookie book. We assign a crew or firefighter to teach a task, and when the trainee shows that they understand it, it gets noted in their book. What’s the purpose to these forms, these rookie books? Is it to teach firefighters to a level of accepted proficiency, to make them an integral part of the team that can be relied upon in a high risk/high stress environment, or is it so we can say that they have been trained?

Applying explicit and implicit learning to the fire service

To understand how to better train people, you must first understand explicit and implicit learning. When we first learn to do something, it is explicit. Think of explicit learning as intentional learning; the process that you are completing is performed with a sense of awareness. You have to walk your way through the steps to complete the task.

Implicit training: When learning occurs unconsciously while applying skills and adapting. (Photo/Adam Parkhurst)
Implicit training: When learning occurs unconsciously while applying skills and adapting. (Photo/Adam Parkhurst)

Implicit learning is when we learn by going through the process and adapting to changing conditions unconsciously, working through the problem. To understand this concept, think about when you learned to drive a car. At first, all of the steps were intentional, you had to think about starting the car, checking your mirrors, which pedal to press, etc. Your driving was probably jerky, and you were more than likely nervous and made errors. That is why, at least for most of us, there was someone in the passenger seat that was able to give you directions on what to do and when to do it, where to direct your attention, – if they were good – what to look out for in certain situations. They were revealing to you their experience as a driver so that you could learn what was right and what could get you killed.

Now, I would bet that you do not go through a step-by-step process to drive your car. Driving has become something that you do without really thinking; it is implicit. You are able to react to changing conditions or unexpected occurrences without having to think through all of the steps. You react unconsciously. This is the level of skill that we should aim for when training new firefighters, the ability to perform the basic tasks without having to think about each step. It has to become second nature.

We have to think of preparation as experience, and lord knows that in the fire service we love experience. I remember when I was new, I desperately wanted to make calls to both learn the job and to prove I could do it. I wanted to show everyone that I was able to meet the bar of expectation and earn my place on the team. But as we all know, you can’t control the calls, but what you can control is your level of preparation. I’ve heard the saying many times, “We’re not paid for what we do, we’re paid for what we’re willing to do,” but I think it should actually be that we are paid to prepare.

So for the new firefighters, we need to take as many opportunities as possible to mold them and train them on every aspect of the job. If they meet the expectations, then we raise the bar. Not to the point where they fail miserably, but to the point where they are out of their comfort zones, because that is what spurs growth. I also believe we should be doing the same to ourselves and our crew. I found that when it became my job to train new paramedics, I also got better, because I was putting in more time and often people with limited real-world experience ask good questions.

Train the rookies: You might just learn something

Teaching new firefighters can often be inhibited by one of the traditions that some people really seem to take pride in; and that’s being a jerk. That sounds a little harsh, but people won’t learn from you very well if they are intimidated by you, and they for sure won’t ask you any questions if they are met with a belittling response. Remember, you were young and scared once too.

A captain works with a new firefighter on bailout procedures. Good training builds trust and confidence at all levels. (Photo/Adam Parkhurst)
A captain works with a new firefighter on bailout procedures. Good training builds trust and confidence at all levels. (Photo/Adam Parkhurst)

Now, I’m not saying that you have to coddle them or give them hugs every day, just that you need to approach the relationship you are developing with the idea that this person will be working with you for the next 30 years, and that it’s your job to teach them, not to break them in. I had a captain sit me down years ago when I become a FTO and tell me that I now had to be careful what I said to people, because I was responsible for training and evaluating someone that may or may not keep their job. If that person was afraid of me because of the way I treated them, then they would fail, and not learn. Also, if they stated that the reason they failed was because the way I treated them created a hostile environment, it would not bode well for me and my career.

This can be a difficult job, and there are a lot of theories on how things should be done, this is merely the approach I’ve crafted after the time I’ve spent teaching and researching. What it really comes down to is that one day, someone will call 911, because the person they love the most in the world is dying, and the only thing standing between that person and death is your team and their level of preparation. And it doesn’t matter if they’ve been there 20 years or 20 days, failure to perform has dire and irreversible consequences. So, take a little time out of your day to train your new rookie; you might just learn something too.

About the author

Adam Parkhurst works as a firefighter/field training paramedic for the Euless, Texas, Fire Department. He has a Master’s degree in Sociology, works as a medical specialist for a FEMA US&R team, and as an adjunct EMS instructor for Tarrant County College. His research interests are disaster and organizational sociology, human performance and adult education.

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