‘The probationary period has evolved into a competition of who had it worse’

Turning a blind eye to hazing and harassment inhibits the growth of new members


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Within a few months of starting my career at a full-time department, I had built a strong relationship with one of my colleagues whom I had confided in when contemplating my resignation. He informed me that many people on my crew had also considered resignation throughout their own appalling probationary periods.

During this conversation, I learned that my crew never wanted me there to begin with, thus making my personal experience worse from the start. They didn’t want a woman on their crew because they were worried it was going to “break the crew dynamic.” I was informed that “kitchen table talk” prior to my start date included a conversation about how they could get me out the door as soon as possible: “Sleep with her so we can get her fired right away,” one member supposedly said.            

In love with a new career

As the younger generations of firefighters complete their probation and move on to become senior members, they have the opportunity to make a difference in the probationary experience of future hires.
As the younger generations of firefighters complete their probation and move on to become senior members, they have the opportunity to make a difference in the probationary experience of future hires. (Photo/Stephen M. Dowell via Orlando Sentinel)

I had previously worked on a part-time fire department as a firefighter and EMT for two years. I fell in love with taking care of patients and the thrill of firefighting. 

Following the completion of my paramedic program, I was given an offer as a full-time firefighter paramedic and was ecstatic to begin my new career. What I thought was going to be an incredibly exciting and educational opportunity quickly turned into something I dreaded waking up for in the morning. In a matter of weeks, my toxic work environment had driven me out of a career in firefighting.

The probationary period paradox

The probationary period is an opportunity to mold a new candidate into an excelling and educated firefighter-paramedic. It is a period when candidates have the opportunity to learn how to serve as a strong asset for the fire service and the community it serves – but only if the atmosphere allows it.

Some fire departments are taking a misguided approach to train their new hires, and it is becoming detrimental to the fire service. Rather than utilizing the new candidate’s first few months to get adapted to the changes in protocols, inventory and maps, while simultaneously building a healthy relationship with their colleagues, some full-time fire departments are utilizing it as an opportunity to intimidate the new hire

“Keep your head down. Don’t socialize too much. Study endlessly,” was the advice I had received from numerous full-time firefighters prior to starting. So every day, I would come in, make coffee, do the rig checks, station chores and anything else that needed to be done, and then I would hit the books. 

After my first cycle, my lieutenant pulled me aside and told me that “bonding with my crew was equally as important as learning my protocols.” 

I had started to find a good balance between studying and bonding with my crew when my station officers assigned me an outstanding mentor who taught me everything he knew while working hard to set me up for success.

As the weeks progressed and my mentor went on an extensive vacation, my entire work dynamic shifted – and so did my productivity, willingness to ask questions, and ability to confront my crew and officers.

The comments included: “What are you going to do without your mentor here to protect you all month? He has been way too nice to you during your probationary period. I had it way harder when I was on probation.”

This is the problem with the atmosphere of today’s career departments. I was constantly learning and asking questions, willing to step up and help, and was starting to build good rapport with my crew. Yet, my probationary period wasn’t “hard enough,” according to some members, not because I wasn’t pushing myself every day to grow, but rather because I wasn’t being constantly belittled by my coworkers. The probationary period has evolved into a competition of who had it worse and, unfortunately, this started the downfall of my time at this department.

The comments began

“Your personality makes it come off as you don’t give a shit about your job and that you’re not taking this seriously.”

“Don’t think for a second we won't fire you if we don't like you. We’re the ones that have to work with you the rest of our careers.” 

“I don’t know why we hired you, you act 12 most days.” 

I went from a bubbly, excited, ambitious individual wanting to make a difference in the community I served to someone who was counting down the minutes until her shift was over.

The harassment I was facing every day when I walked into work caused me to shut down. My eagerness to learn turned into fear of making mistakes. My outgoing personality that had bonded well with my crew in the weeks prior turned into one of few words. My desire to be a career firefighter diminished.

After contemplating resignation for several weeks, I confronted my fire chief with the concerns I had about my experience at the department. The response: “There’s a fine line between employees being out of line and the harsh reality of a probationary period.” Even so, he did say that he didn’t like some of the comments I shared.

In the end, the chief’s lack of concern over the situation solidified my decision to resign from serving in the fire service full-time. While the door of career firefighting closed for me, a career in the medical field remained open. I am currently employed by a part-time fire department and am in the process of completing my bachelor’s degree in nursing.

YOU have a choice

My ability to perform my job should not come down to my ability to tolerate bedevilment from my coworkers. In fact, a negative work and learning environment has a negative impact on an individual’s ability to perform. If the main objective of a probationary period is to mold a new hire into a valuable asset to the fire department, why are we inhibiting that process with workplace harassment?

As the younger generations of firefighters complete their probation and move on to become senior members, they have the opportunity to make a difference in the probationary experience of future hires. YOU have the choice to either make their lives miserable and inhibit their success, or YOU have a choice to treat people with respect and push them to become the best firefighter-paramedic they can be. Which would you rather be known for? Remember where you came from and do better.

Editor’s note: What was your probationary period like? Share your story in the comments below or with the editor at editor@firerescue1.com.

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