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Rank and File: Getting the Attitude Right from the Start

By Dr. Shana Nicholson, Faculty Member, Emergency and Disaster Management at American Military University

The U.S. Fire Administration reports that there are about 1.2 million firefighters in the United States. The level of experience and knowledge within the fire service is as big of a range as the personalities, but there is not always enough of an emphasis on sharing knowledge.

The fire service is wrought with tradition and dedication to helping others, yet it often fails to help young firefighters understand and respect these traditions in a positive way. We in the fire service must foster a positive attitude and a level of respect among the rank and file.

Many young and eager newbies enter the fire service wanting to charge into a fire scene to save the world with complete disregard for safety and authority. They quickly become “Facebook firefighters,” posting every scene on their social media accounts.

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Firefighter lockers line the walls of the Stonewood Volunteer Fire Department

When we recruit new personnel, we must appreciate their excitement for the role. Newbies have an innate eagerness to be in the midst of the chaos. It is easy to haze the newbie firefighter or bust his or her chops in-station. It’s even easier to become frustrated and annoyed with a newbie’s eagerness; it isn’t easy to teach humility and respect for fire service as a profession.

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How do we teach humility and respect while fostering the excitement for fire service that helps us recruit new volunteers?

Fire service is about rank and file. Keeping everyone safe and ensuring we all come home is crucial. The newbie’s excitement for the chaos and their first entry can also get them hurt.

There cannot be enough said about repetition and training. I had an instructor tell me that I should tie the knot a thousand times until I get it right and then continue to tie it a thousand more times in order to know it’s right. Repetition teaches skills to the point of second nature. We want to know our craft well to ensure we provide the utmost care for those we serve.

We must instill a respect for authority and an understanding of that authority. Commanding officers give directives to provide the best allocation of resources and to ensure effective management of the scene. Ultimately, the commanding officer and the line officers are charged with keeping everyone safe.

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New and well-worn helmets from the Stonewood Volunteer Fire Department

Using errors as teaching moments and not battering rams also instills a sense of teamwork in the ranks. Our goal with new and experienced folks alike should be to train and train some more so there are fewer mistakes and everyone comes home. We should also remember to praise in public but criticize in private.

It’s important for leaders and experienced firefighters to share their lived experiences, both good and bad. We may tell war stories of the famed “good old days,” but remember that we senior members have learned from our own mistakes as well. This knowledge needs to be shared in the hopes it can help keep the newbies safe.

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Lastly, it’s important that leaders instill respect by commanding it, not demanding it. Younger generations are often seen as immediate-gratification mongers and some even as know-it-alls. That’s not always the case; new firefighters must be trained how to be intelligent, effective team members, which requires strong guidance from those who have been here longer.

And don’t forget to let some of the excitement from fresh eyes renew your own passion for the profession. Many of us have committed our time to fire service out of a passion and desire to serve; the newbies’ excitement can serve all our spirits well.

Shana nicholson_FireTruck_pic_SMAbout the Author: Dr. Shana Nicholson has more than 20 years of emergency medical and fire science service experience. She is currently a member of Stonewood Volunteer Fire Department in West Virginia. Her professional background also includes government, social services, and nonprofit administration. She is currently a faculty member in emergency and disaster management at American Military University. She received a bachelor’s in criminal justice from Fairmont State University, a master’s of science in human services with a specialization in criminal justice and a PhD in human services with a counseling specialization, both from Capella University.


Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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