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Guest Column: July 2014

Your first year on the floor as a career firefighter is filled with challenges, rewards and things you wish someone had told you before you started.

July 3, 2014 
By Matt Gervais

Your first year on the floor as a career firefighter is filled with challenges, rewards and things you wish someone had told you before you started. It’s important to know how rewarding this job has been for me in my short time as a career firefighter and how, already, it has improved my approach to life and work.

It is imperative to touch on something to which my generation, specifically, has not paid enough attention – the hundreds of years of tradition in the fire service. One thing I learned from reading former Lewisville, Texas, fire chief Rick Lasky’s book Pride and Ownership is that we know very little of that tradition. I was brought up in a firefighting family; I thought I knew more than most, having spent a lot of time in the fire hall. But, as Lasky’s book pointed out to me, I had no idea why fire trucks are red, what the Maltese cross stands for or how the pike pole got its name.

In our profession, thousands of people have laid down their lives. In a fire house, tradition is important. So why are we not encouraged to learn the finer details of these traditions? We need to learn about major line-of-duty deaths; all the information you could ever want is just a click away and we owe it to our fallen brothers and sisters to use that information in a preventive manner. The flip side of all that technology is the shift toward more texting and emails and fewer conversations – those invaluable hours at the table listening to officers talk about the old days.

It should be common practice to be respectful to your senior firefighters, your officers, and the public. I read an article years ago that talked about the four ups: shut up, listen up, clean up and step up.


Shut up should be obvious. When you are new, the last thing you want to do is say the wrong thing to the wrong person or have someone take something you say the wrong way. Earn your opinions and earn your right to joke with the team.

Listen up applies to the wealth of knowledge around you. Listening translates to learning. Learn from the guys who have spent more time running calls than you have been alive. Listening helps you do your job better. If the senior man is complaining about something, make sure he never has the opportunity to complain about it again. Show that you’re willing to listen to advice and learn from
your mistakes.

Clean up is the most basic. As the junior, you should expect to do the dirtiest work – so do it with a smile on your face.

Step up is where you really show you that belong. When the phone rings, answer it; when someone is at the door, open it; and when the department needs a volunteer, be the person for the job. This attitude translates to calls as well as off-shift work including parades, special events and group outings.

As trivial as these things seem, they will go a long way in making a good first impression. Unfortunately for some, first impressions may dictate whether the first year is difficult or enjoyable. Outside of the four ups and the basics, there a few things rookie firefighters can do to stand out. Take pride in your work and your equipment. Remember how hard you worked to get to where you are. Remember how many people applied for your position and remember what you did to get this job. Now that you have the job, go above and beyond to show the people who hired you that they made the right choice. Think about your fire house and your rig; it is called a house for a reason. It’s important to treat the fire house as if it is your own home and take pride in doing extra little things.

For the first little while as a new firefighter, I was having trouble filling some of the down time. This down time offers a chance to do the chores that are beneficial for you and your crew instead of sitting on the couch and watching TV. Take the rust off your hand tools with the wire wheel of a bench grinder, or put some linseed oil on the handles of your tools. This shows your crew that you care – and it keeps your hand tools in good working order.

Consider your truck. That truck is your family vehicle. It’s condition and the condition of your equipment will greatly impact your success at a call. Do you know where all the equipment is? If you waste 45 seconds opening compartments to look for a tool, you’re not only hurting your team, you’re also hurting the taxpayer who helps to put you on that truck. What if your family is in distress; is everything in the condition you would want it?

As a junior, anything you can do to help at a scene is important. If you don’t have a job at the scene, look for ways to help – bring a crying child a stuffed animal or try to salvage what’s left of some pictures at a house fire. Good chiefs will tell you that good public relations can make their jobs a lot easier. The more you can do for residents, the more likely it is they will back the chief or support your department when you want council to approve another truck or some station renovations.

Make sure you pre-plan for every call. Learn about a new street or the type of building construction for that new pizza shop.

Most importantly, have a good attitude and have fun. The fire hall is and will always be a place of good humour. Being a happy and positive person can be infectious and will make your time at work much more enjoyable.

Matt Gervais  

Matt Gervais is a career firefighter in Guelph, Ont. He completed the pre-fire service program at Algonquin College in Ottawa and was a volunteer firefighter with Ottawa Fire Services for three years before joining the Guelph Fire Department in 2011. Contact him at

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