Trending Topics

From recruit to probie: Advice for the newest members joining the ranks

Learn your learning style, focus on fitness, and understand your place on the incident scene

Firefighter helmets

This is a critical moment in your fire service career – one that warrants a healthy dose of advice and encouragement.

AP Photo/Mike Groll

Congratulations, you made it through the application and interview process. You’re a fire recruit on your way to becoming a probationary firefighter.

This is a critical moment in your fire service career – one that warrants a healthy dose of advice and encouragement. Complete the form on this page to download this advice to help you through the process or share with a new firefighter you know.

Let’s walk through some key advice for fire recruits and probationary firefighters.

Fire recruit advice

When you’re a fire recruit, you have a lot to learn. Fortunately, there are countless resources for you to learn – your peers, books, the internet, to name a few. It’s also vital that you get a feel for the career, including the role of fitness and leadership. The key is to dive in and embrace the path ahead.
Determine your best study habits: Every student needs to identify their best method of study for reading assignments, outlining where to seek out additional information, participating in study groups, taking quizzes and exams, and paying attention to the instructors. Not all of us learn in the same way. Determine your best method of study and stick to that regimen during these critical months.

Those firefighters with a few years (or decades) of experience probably used the familiar method of reading and outlining a book chapter to absorb the material. Newer recruits use their cell phones to explore learning materials on a variety of topics, even firefighting basics. Regardless of your approach to learning, good study habits include a dedicated time and environment that optimizes their learning.

Everyone has their unique learning tricks, too. For example, at one time in my life, I had to pass a fairly sophisticated accounting class. Reviewing a lot of material, especially when my young children were around, became difficult. The method I used was to study with music. Every time I reviewed the principles of a chapter, I listened to the same song, with a different song for each major section. When it came to the final exam, when I was stumped, I played the appropriate tune in my head, and those critical concepts came back to me.

Note: For any recruit who needs assistance for a learning impairment like ADD, dyslexia, etc., most fire academies and instructors have ways to accommodate those needs. However, the onus is on the student to come forward early, or even before the classes begin, to discuss their needs with the lead instructor. Acknowledge the situation early in the process so the instructors can make the arrangements for you to excel in the courses. Remember, the courses are progressive. The paramedics classes, which usually come after Firefighter I and II, are typically killers compared with the firefighting curriculum.

Keep plugging again, even if you’re not the top of your class. Remember the old adage, “What do you call the student with the lowest GPA graduating from medical school? A doctor, of course.”

Focus on physical fitness: From the beginning of your recruit experience, it’s essential to find time for physical fitness – a habit that should be practiced throughout your career. At my department, our recruits have access to a fitness facility in our administration building 24/7/365. It doesn’t matter when they focus on fitness as long as they do. After all, it’s as important a habit for a firefighter as anything else we teach.

Keep in mind that while recruits have regular physical training and must show progress in physical conditioning, you must also make a commitment to health. The recruit fitness demands are mandatory, but your commitment to lifelong fitness and self-care is essential to your physical and mental well-being in this career.

Even as you advance through the ranks, fitness is still vital. For me, a regular fitness program kept me fit throughout my career, whether as a firefighter, officer or chief. When I became fire marshal for Ohio, I dropped some of that regimen, and when I left to become chief of a municipal fire department, I soon realized that I needed that discipline again to get back into shape. I still exercise five times a week and hope it will always remain a part of my daily routine.

Experience company leadership: Starting in recruit class, there are rotating leadership positions assigned to students. A class is typically divided into four or five “companies,” making it easier to rotate crews for everything from clean-up and sanitizing the classroom to evolutions on the drill field or burn building. The company officer position is also usually rotated, giving instructors some insights in the recruits’ leadership traits and giving recruits the chance to experience what it’s like to be responsible for a company – a preview of the role and responsibilities of their actual company officers once they are assigned to fire companies.

Probationary firefighter advice

Once you graduate, you will usually be assigned to a specific unit day, but you may “float” around to various fire stations or companies as needed to fill out the unit’s staffing needs. It’s a time of adjustment and learning.
Observe, think and don’t be distracted: My best advice to a rookie is “Observe, think and don’t be distracted.” Specifically, when you come off an apparatus, you need to observe the situation and think about the orders given by your company officer without being distracted by whom or what you see.

Case in point: I recently arrived at a multi-car motor vehicle accident with entrapment slightly ahead of the responding fire and EMS units. I surveyed the situation to confirm if there were indeed any victims entrapped. At the first vehicle with an air bag deployment, I found a police officer coaxing the driver to leave the vehicle. I stopped and asked if he could move, and he answered “Yes.” Seeing the damage to the car and the air bag marks on his forehead and arms, I suggested the driver wait and motioned for the first medic unit to attend to him.

The striking vehicle, in what must have been very poor condition, had left the scene and vanished into the night. Witnesses could only describe it as a white, smaller sedan with heavy front-end damage.

The third vehicle had much less damage, no air bag deployment, and the driver had exited on his own.

While still at the third car, the ladder, rescue and engine arrived with two of them taking blocking positions on the road. A rookie and the company lieutenant both came toward me. The rookie had started to speak to me when the lieutenant interjected, “What assignment did I give you while we were responding?” The rookie answered, “Stabilize the cars and disconnect the batteries, if needed.” The officer simply said, “Do it, and I’ll see what the chief needs.” A quick reminder to the rookie as to whom he reported, how he needed to act, and to not be distracted by the number of bugles on the scene.

Obviously, new probationary firefighters sometimes need a reminder, and sometimes have an early confidence builder. At a recent early morning townhouse fire, the officer of the first-arriving engine and his rookie on their first working fire fought their way into a well-involved two-story residence that had not yet self-vented, nor had it traveled into the attic space, but, as the officer described, the fire was extremely hot.

The rookie remembered their training and understood that their mission was to knock down the fires on the first and second floors so the ladder crew could search for victims. The rookie took the nozzle, and under the direction of the officer hit the ceiling with a straight stream, knocking down the first-floor living room flames. Then, as a second line was coming into the structure, they took their line to the second floor and knocked down the remaining bedroom fires in the same manner before it could enter the attic – a situation that would have threatened the four other units in the townhouse complex.

Use your learning experiences: In both of these examples, under the direction of experienced officers, the rookies learned valuable lessons that reinforced their training on an actual emergency scene. All of us made mistakes when we started – and continued to make mistakes as we learned how to operate and lead those entrusted to us – but we get better. We improve day by day.

Keep this in mind as you navigate the rookie and probie years.

Stay safe!

[Read next: 20 rules all rookie firefighters should know]

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.