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Between Alarms: Adjusting to life in the fire hall


March 27, 2009
By Jesse Challoner

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Our culture is a product of tradition, which breeds an important hierarchy; by honouring established customs, respect is earned. In my short time on the job I have found that it is not solely our abilities as firefighters that bring us together as a crew, it is our respect for the traditions set by those who came before us that truly bring us into the family.

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Our culture is a product of tradition, which breeds an important hierarchy; by honouring established customs, respect is earned. In my short time on the job I have found that it is not solely our abilities as firefighters that bring us together as a crew, it is our respect for the traditions set by those who came before us that truly bring us into the family.

However, not all traditions are apparent, and usually they are not enforced (in an official capacity anyway). We can find a niche in our new life by watching, listening and learning about the way of life in our fire halls. It’s not hard to notice who answers the phone or makes the coffee. I am a strong believer in the family of the fire hall and maintaining the cultural aspect of our profession. We can accomplish this in many ways; one is to pass the torch of probationary life to those coming into our house.

I have had the opportunity to work beside some individuals for whom I have great respect. This admiration stems not necessarily from what they are capable of on scenes or their knowledge base but primarily for taking the time to show me the way. I recall one of our senior members giving me a gem that I won’t forget, a simple adage that I fall back on often; the four ups – listen up, clean up, step up and shut up. If all else fails, the four ups will save you at the fire hall.

The first couple of years, particularly the probationary year, on the job can come with many challenges. In addition to learning the many facets of fighting fires and treating medical emergencies, new members are adapting to the lifestyle and customs that come with being a firefighter. There are few careers where you do virtually everything together as a crew – train, cook, eat, clean, play, rest, work out, go on calls and socialize. Together as a family, we live and breathe. This depiction of a fire hall can be a tough transition for some, but with guidance, motivation and time, a new member is soon accepted as a trusted friend and important addition to his or her crew.

I am always interested to hear of other fire departments’ traditions – some are similar across the board and some are unique to their respective services. In my fire hall some of the traditions revolve around getting to know the equipment you will be using, such things as diligent truck checks every shift until you can recite the location and use of every tool on the rig. Some traditions focus on the probationary duties, the aforementioned answering of the phone, making coffee, or being the first one at the sink for dishes. Others are products of respecting what members prior have set as a standard. The nice touches in a probie’s repertoire could be making breakfast for the crew or always being the first member on shift that day/night, leading tours that come through the hall or stepping up when the time comes for public service outside work hours. It is by embracing these tasks or others that a new member can successfully earn a place as a brother or sister to those we serve beside.

Something else that may require getting used to while learning to live in the fire house is the humor. This can be interesting for new members who are not used to its distinctiveness. We use our humor to help deal with the things we see and do, and to learn lessons for next time. There is value in listening to the anecdote told of the tough job or close call. We also use humor to include new members in life at the fire hall. Of course I am referring to pranks. So much planning and preparation goes into some of these elaborate jokes that half the fun is coming up with the scheme. These pranks are not meant to offend, but to embrace our new members and show them that not everything on this job is serious. In my first few weeks on the floor, I remember one of the brothers on my crew standing over me laughing. I was soaking wet head-to-toe and covered in flour. He said, “If they aren’t talking to you, pranking you or training you, then it’s time to worry.” By this he meant that I was slowly being accepted, they were including me, and acknowledging me as a probie. The new member on the job should know that pranks and jokes are a way of showing fondness. All you can do is laugh. . . and look up when you walk into the bay.

I trust that you, like me, look forward to going to work. We are fortunate to have the best job in the world. We are able to help those in need, work beside our friends and come home to the fire hall and laugh together.

For new members it is paramount to remember that this is more than a job, it’s a family, and part of belonging to a family entails chores, pranks, learning, listening and, above all, respect. Families don’t always get along, sometimes we argue and sometimes we make mistakes but the beauty of family is that we are always there for each other, from senior member to probie we help each other and pick each other up, and, no matter what, we are always there for one another.

Although it can take time to become incorporated into this culture and accepted as a member of the crew, it has been my experience that it is worth every ounce of effort put in. 

Jesse Challoner has been with the Strathcona County Emergency Services in Alberta for 2 ½ years and has been in the emergency services field since 2002. He is an EMT and is completing the two-year paramedic program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. Contact him at jchalloner@hotmail.com


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