A Letter From the Rookie

By: Mark vonAppen

This letter came to me from a firefighter in a major metroplolitan department here in the USA.  If this rookie had a voice, this is what he would say.


Captain,

Look, I know I am just a rookie.  I am not experienced, that is the point.  That is why I hound you to train me, to drill with me, to make me sharp, to help me hone my skills.  I know that there is much merit in tradition, but the things I want and need to do have merit as well.

I want to learn.

I am not a 2-years-going-on-10 type of person.  I know I am as green as a tree frog.  I look up to you.  I sit at your feet waiting for your knowledge to fall on me like raindrops.  I am a sponge.  I watch your every move and imitate what I see.  10 years from now people will know whose rookie I was by my actions, attitude, and work ethic.  I am not a child, but in many ways I am like a toddler taking their first steps; my career having just begun.

You and the crew have many combined years of service and every one of them was spent learning something.  You are teaching me these things whether you know it or not; whether you want to or not.

“I look up to you.  I want to learn.  I am watching.”

Once upon a time you too were the eager rookie.  You looked up to the veterans with awe as I do you.  The firefighter you are today is a direct result of those who raised you in the fire service.  In the same way, you are shaping me and my classmates, the current rookies.  I learn your habits, the way you check your gear, the apparatus, and the way you treat me.  I will be a reflection of you.  I will check my SCBA the way you taught me and I will show only as much attention to detail as you teach me to.

I am watching.

Right now I am eager to learn, please show me what is right.  Please show me the right way to do things, instill your strong work ethic in me.  10 years from now, when people look at whose rookie I was, please let it be a good thing.

– Your Rookie



You are teaching whether you know it or not.
The letter gave me pause as I re-inventoried who I try to be as a leader.  It is a constant learning process.  I was reminded that there is a synergy between learning and leading and that we must forever pay our knowledge forward.

We must remember that the new people are always watching us and will mirror what they see; both good and bad. Remember too, that we are aggregate beings comprised of everything and everyone we have ever known and experienced.  Pieces of our every contact in a lifetime of contacts have molded and shaped us into who we are today.  Today’s interactions change who we will be tomorrow.  We are resultant of a lifetime’s worth of input from all we have observed, both positive and negative.

If you can look down the line at all of the people who came through your firehouse that went on to become successful, charismatic, and understanding leaders then you can be proud of the rich heritage you helped to create.  


Your rookie is watching you, feed their hunger for knowledge.  Their growth and success will be your legacy.


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10 Comments

  1. I loved having a rookie in the firehouse. Even 32 years later, I never forgot how uncomfortable I felt walking into a new firehouse. I believed my role was to make them welcome, grateful they were there, and glad they chose us as their department, and they had made it this far in their pursuit of a career.

    I never understood the whole hazing ritual, albeit subtle when I was around as a Chief. I could tell that there were some FF's that had 3-5+ yrs. on were not always behaving like adults when I wasn't around, how cliché they were, what punks. I usually did my own orientation of the rookies, and I typically had a 20-question ritual at dinner, just to get to know them as a person. I could always remember their name much better if I knew how old they were, where they grew up, where they went to school, did they have a significant other or children, what did they do before, why did they want to come to our department, why did they want to be a firefighter, etc?

    I remember one rookie told me that the reason that he became a firefighter was because there was a fire station at the end of his street. He didn't elaborate. There was this pregnant pause, as I waited for him to finish his thought, idea, anecdote or experience. I asked, “That's it?” He nodded. More pause… I said, “come on, there's got to be more, don't be embarrassed, it's OK to give a interview panel type answer.” He remained silent. So I bit, it was a moment of weakness I admit, and I judged him of not wanting to appear “uncool”… So I asked, “OK, what if it was a gas station at the end of your street, would you have pumped gas for a living?” I’m sure he had a more significant emotional connection to choose a profession that would cost him his youth and health when compared to other professions. Yet, this noble opportunity to serve is such a blessing.

    I loved the energy and enthusiasm of the rookie, and the opportunity we were given to make a first impression, to help mold, shape and influence their belief in this profession. I’d always remind them that we were watching them like a hawk, and how they handled the little mundane details spoke volumes of their character and work ethic.

    The whole running to get the phone, and making coffee, and cooking seemed like a misplaced focus on the critical factors of proficiency. Yes, I was an excellent custodian, taking pride in my housework, and cooked my share of meals to happy crews. However, my focus was always on what I call “the work.” Those dangerous high-risk, low frequency, non-discretionary tasks that occur in compressed timeframes, requiring near perfect execution to impact a positive outcome.

    Once again, our host blogger, Mark vonAppen, has brought a great issue to the forefront. It’s not just the rookie that’s watching, everyone is watching. Are you a professional or a F.I.N.O. (Firefighter in Name Only?) As my colleague Steve Forman asks, “Did you join the team just to wear the jersey on Fridays?” Jerry Rice’s work ethic was an inspiration. He worked hard to the very end. Remember, finish strong, your pay check is for the last pay period worked, not your self perceived legacy. Be Nice!

  2. As a Capt. That hit me right in the face. I will let up some but not totally. They still have to earn there way and not be babies about the way there treated , but i will take in that they are learning

  3. Great, the senior men or the officers are not always intent on instructing, or showing someone the ropes. I still have the desire, over thirty years in. I provide training and participate in the training; crawling through a breached wall for training and letting the rookie see me "do it". I will not let up the reminders to have your gear on, wear your gloves and get there safely; a few officers and senior men did it for me and I pass it on.As difficult as it is to stay positive while politicians are trying to kill us in the name of a budget and Fire Chiefs are "checking their BOXES" building a resume behind their desk. My Probie gets what I have and my crews have;along with what my former officers and senior firefighters gave me, in the station and in the street; in spite of how comfortable a recliner in the firehouse can be.

  4. Thank you all for taking the time to read this post and comment on it.

    In order to pay our knowledge forward we cannot coach at people in the same way we do not talk at people. To reach our people we must coach to them, just as our efforts in teaching should speak to the pupil.

    A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment. Cultivating trust in the training environment is a must have if we seek to create a safe place to learn. We must invest time and interest in our human future in order for everyone to move forward.

    Trust in the leader allows for trainees to stretch themselves; to go to places outside their established comfort zones. The results are trainees who seek greater depths of knowledge because they feel comfortable trying new things.

    Leadership is owning your responsibility to the future. Show your people the way. Keep them safe even after you are gone.

  5. Awesome perspective by "the rookie". Some place we all have been, no matter how seasoned you are at the present. There are a few comments that bother me, hopefully they were intended to stir the pot … wouldn't that be unique in the Fire House. Experienced "Leaders" are examples, mentors, coaches, regardless of their rank or assignment. These rookies see what you do & how you do it, whether you intend it that way or not. Your actions speak louder than words !! From station duties to fire fighting to overhaul and clean up, INCLUDING (if not most importantly) the way you treat people both family and community. Some "Leaders" willingly accept the responsibility that comes with experience, some not so much. For me is the statements about the Legacy I leave behind… the Fire House and family will be there long after I have made my last alarm… I'd like the lessons learned and the stories told to be honorable as much as they may be infamous.