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Straight Talk: September 2014

Over the last decade in particular, fire departments have faced staffing challenges due to experienced firefighters retiring, less-experienced firefighters leaving for a number of reasons, recruitment of new personnel and declining fire-ground experiences for firefighters promoted to supervisory positions.

August 28, 2014
By Kevin Foster

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Over the last decade in particular, fire departments have faced staffing challenges due to experienced firefighters retiring, less-experienced firefighters leaving for a number of reasons, recruitment of new personnel and declining fire-ground experiences for firefighters promoted to supervisory positions. Therefore, it is imperative that the fire service take steps to ensure that recruit firefighters have positive experiences;  departments may then be rewarded by retaining these individuals for longer periods and obtaining greater returns on their investments.

Rarely have I attended a conference of late that hasn’t included a presentation on understanding the new generations of firefighters. But we need to remember that it’s not just firefighters; the issues that concern us in the fire hall are same issues that frustrate people in other workplaces; it’s a generational thing, not a fire thing. 

It is often heard in fire-service circles that probationary or less-experienced firefighters just don’t respect the veterans the way they used to. We’ve all heard the different terms used for recruit firefighters, but my personal pet peeve is the word probie. This term degrades and belittles new firefighters. In this day and age, in which we battle bullying and harassment, use of the term is inappropriate.

Some will argue that using the word probie is fine because it’s has always been part of the fire-service jargon and, therefore, is a fire-service tradition. I disagree. As I have written here before, traditions are those ideals and customs that have some type of special significance. Traditions are an important part of fire-service history and it is incumbent on experienced firefighters to share those valued practices and customs with recruits.

However, the labelling of new firefighters has no special significance, other than the fact that it has been done for a long time. Use of these labels is demeaning, because these terms are commonly tied to some form of meaningless or mundane task that the new firefighter is directed to perform. It is well past the time for the fire service to stop using these words and stop using tradition as a shroud to hide behind. It is time for these terms to exit the fire-service lingo.

As children, many of us heard the rhyme “sticks and stones will (may) break my bones but words will never harm (hurt) me.” Society has come to learn that, in fact, words do hurt, perhaps not physically but certainly emotionally.

Governments around the globe have passed anti-bullying legislation. Schools have certainly taken a much more aggressive approach to deter words and actions that are deemed to bully students; they have effectively utilized peer-to-peer programs to aid in reinforcing anti-bullying strategies. Amateur athletics is another example; team officials must complete various courses that include content to identify and address bullying. In the workplace, bullying is generally included as a form of harassment that is prohibited. Employers have developed policies to aid in ensuring respectful workplaces for all employees.

The terms bullying and harassment have their dictionary definitions but how those apply to the workplace is often left open for interpretation; essentially the simplest way to explain these terms is to think of them as being words and actions that are continually directed toward others that they find personally unpleasant.

Supervisors certainly would not accept new recruits referring to their captain as “Cap” or the deputy chief as “Dep”, so why is it, then, that some in our profession feel it is OK to refer to a new recruit firefighter in a similar fashion?

Recruit firefighters are the future senior firefighters, captains, deputies and chiefs.  Particularly in the volunteer sector, they are also the newest recruiters. Consider the messages recruit firefighters will be delivering to their friends and families. Is that message one that may inspire someone hearing it to become a firefighter?

One last thought: keep in mind that the recruit you are teasing and taunting mid-morning may be the one person you rely on as a team member shortly after lunch. You want that person to be there with full confidence and focus to help get a hazardous task done. You certainly don’t want that firefighter to be thinking about what you said to him or her two hours earlier.

And, if you think that because you were treated this way when you started it is therefore your right or, even worse, your obligation to do it to someone else, do the fire service a favour and retire or resign – you owe your newest members just a little more respect; you may be surprised in the dividends it pays.


Kevin Foster is the fire chief in Midland, Ont. Contact him at kfoster@midland.ca and follow him on Twitter at @midlanddfsem


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