In our department, a recently hired firefighter/paramedic told stories of how probationary firefighters at his previous department had been treated like college kids pledging a fraternity. On his first day, he knew he wouldn't stay long when his chief told him he wouldn’t have an opinion there for five years.
Why have a testing, application and interview process, striving to get to the best department members, only to alienate them from day one? Why make them wonder if they've joined a place unwilling to work with them?
The days of hazing, harassment and degrading people are over; firefighters—and fire chiefs—have lost their jobs because of it.
During a new firefighter's first days, departments have the opportunity to develop a sense of pride and build loyalty and commitment from the very beginning. Firefighters should be greeted by their new departments with a sense of value, teamwork and the tools to succeed, not made to believe they don’t really matter. Don't let them develop an uncooperative attitude or decide they're going to start looking for a new situation immediately.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. On that first day, we expect new members to show up clean-shaven, hair neat, uniform fresh and ready to go to work.
It works both ways. If on that first day your new hires walk into an organization where others look unkempt even in regulation uniforms, if they’re told they don’t have an opinion or are harassed, if personal problems aren't department problems, that new firefighter—the one you hoped would help to make a difference—will quickly adapt, partly to survive, to the existing culture. Over time, such behavior becomes a department norm—one we fostered. Eventually it will manifest itself to the public.
The late Harwich (Mass.) fire chief, Robert Peterson, was one of those respected local legends you’re fortunate to know, work for or learn from. Chief Pete built a lineup with an incredible sense of teamwork and loyalty. Part of this was based on his ability to work with his people when they were in crisis: "Take care of your family, take care of the problem, and we’ll work out the rest."
And it worked; seven years after his death, that culture still exists, envied by firefighters from other departments.
In most instances, our hiring practices work for us to hire the best of the best. We bring new hires in based on qualifications, education and experience. We brought them in because, like our customers, we want a winning team. Yet we fail to learn from them or sometimes even try to.
John Fields, former director of the Cape & Islands Emergency Medical Services System, Inc. and a retired hospital vice president, implemented an interesting evaluation system. At the 90-day mark, when new hires were evaluated by their supervisors, they were also asked to evaluate how things were done in the hospital. Fields referred to these meetings as "what’s stupid" meetings. They were an opportunity to draw on new employees' experiences and improve how the hospital operated.
More importantly, it was a way to welcome them to the team. Do we do that? Or it more common to hear, "We don’t do it that way here"?
Many departments have rules with a particular name associated with them; those rules, enacted as a reaction to a bad situation, may no longer be needed or necessary. There may be a better way, but we need to look for it and accept it when it arrives. We try to hire the best, but do we fail to use our new hires' knowledge and experience to our advantage? Each new department member may be the one who has an answer we’ve been looking for.
Henry Ford once said, "If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as your own." That ability—that first and hopefully lasting impression—is the one we should all strive for.