In defense of the Senior man

Lately there seems to be a push against experience in favor of education in the fire service. This push isn’t new, but this wave is riding the coattails of the preliminary results of the first large scale fire attack study, which is at best half way done. Many young inexperienced firefighters and officers are looking to the study to teach them the things they aren’t learning through on the job experience. As much as it may sound like I am condemning this practice it is in fact a necessity. Experience is bought through investing time or money either at work or through classes. Experience is what allows us to be more efficient and more intelligent about our work.

I encourage firefighters to go take classes. Go, please. Take a class on a subject you think you know all about from firefighter from that works in a different city type than yours. Take a class on something you hate, maybe you will find a use for it or solidify your dislike. Just go out and get some education outside of your department when you can. But when you can’t, try to learn from the senior man, they are a wealth of knowledge. If the senior man is of no help keep practicing what you have learned because education without experience is only theory.

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I say senior man as a position title, like Lieutenant or chief, for no other reason. The senior man is a valuable source of experience for subject matters related to doing your job and also the administration of your department. Even if the senior man has only existed in their position for the last 30 years and not contributed a damn thing to advancing their department they have still learned quite a bit of inside knowledge on how the department operates even if it only came through trying to find a way OUT of working. If this is your senior man I feel sorry for you. But all is not lost. They can still be a source of information. They have gone through more mandatory training in their time than you have so far. If they will not openly share information with you pay attention to how they operate at an incident. If they are one of those “He sucks 99% of the time, but you should see him work at a fire” type of people then do that, learn when you can.

When I was a private I went to a company whose average seniority was 30+ years. They hated me and my measly 5 years experience. They hated me even more when they found out I went to training outside my department in order to have a better idea what I was getting into before my transfer. They thought I was there to water down or steal the company they loved. They wouldn’t let me work at incidents until they were tired and would not share ANY information or insights with me. I happened to walk in on them talking about how bad I was at the job and how much I had to learn and I finally got to speak my mind. They were all going to retire, soon. All of their experience and knowledge was going to retiring with them. If they wanted the company they loved to live on after them and have the successes it had with them they needed to start passing the information on. A couple of them loosened their stance towards me and started sharing their thoughts while working at incidents. Some felt they couldn’t show that they softened their position but did start doing subtle things like allowing me to get a better vantage point of an operation they normally would have blocked me and others out of. I took it as a win, not just for me but the department, and as their retirements came I thanked them for the subtle changes they made because of the huge difference it made in the firehouse.

Everyone wants the senior man that says “come over here kid, let me show you how it’s done” and then have a great learning experience. But the reality is that type of person is very rare. The firefighter that sits at the coffee table and craps huge diamond nuggets of wisdom doesn’t exist. You have to dig through the mountains of shit to find the little borderline useless lesson to weigh against your experience to find its value. But that is where the lessons are. The value of finding an unintended lesson by yourself cannot be overstated. It has to mean something to you.

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We shared a Cpt Sullenberger quote yesterday. This one is also fitting:
“One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education, and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal” Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. 42 years of grinding, steadily perfecting his craft came down one moment.

How can you make your senior man more useful or a better source of information?
1. Acknowledge the time they have put in. Whether it is good time or not, they have given up a large chunk of their lives for the job.
2. Think about how much the job has changed during their time in it. When I first got on there were no computers on or in the fire trucks. Imagine how the guys I worked with who had 30+ years on to my 5 felt when we got a new fire apparatus with push button electric shifting and a computer terminal.
3. Try to push the history aspect. The world keeps spinning, if they want to keep something alive in the firehouse or leave their mark on the department the clock is ticking.
4. When doing drills don’t force them to participate if it will force them further away mentally. Let them decide when the time is right to add something.
5. Listen to their imput when they have something to say. Negative and positive. Does not mean you need to act on the opinions they share. But if nobody listens when they talk why would they continue to try?
6. Be ready to listen when they are ready to talk. Along with #5, you never know when they are going to share a memory. I’m not saying hang on every word, but don’t blow them off because they open their mouth about a subject.
7. Don’t draw attention if they change. If they do decide to come around just go with it, show the effort isn’t wasted. Thank them privately later.
8. Don’t push any issue too much. Think of where you will be in 30 years. Be realistic. think about how many changes have been pushed through your department, how many self inflated egos will you have to deal with, how many young guys who have no clue how the world works trying to tell you how the world works plus how your body is working (or not)…Be Realistic. Then decide how far you should push them.
9. Realize that one of you may just be a POS. It happens. You opened your mouth when you showed up now they think you are a know it all. Maybe the senior man has been on the slowest company for 30 years and called in sick for half of that. These things happen. It’s a slim chance but one or both of you may be a lost cause.
10. Minimum standards go both ways, and they are meant for people who aren’t accountable for their own actions. The senior man must be held to the same standards as every other member but do it in the same way you would one of your parents. Unless you treat your parents like crap, then you need to quit and find something else to do with your time.

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It sounds like I am pandering to the senior man. I’m not, I’m pandering to the younger members who think every senior man should be like Lombardo, Pressler, Fields and gentlemen like them. These men are rare. You have to take what you are given and do the best you can with it. Not every member of the department is going to have the same thought process as you, that’s how we succeed. The fire service as a whole is successful because of the combination of experience and education of the membership as a whole. When we start leaning one way or the other too much it starts to show in our performance. Change is difficult in the fire service because it has to be. If we change everything based on the probationary firefighter’s opinion or the opinions of a junior officer how long would it take before our departments are unrecognizable and ineffective?

Maybe your problem with the senior man is user error.
Don’t change the senior man, change yourself.


  • Brian says:

    ive had senior men like that! They all left me with pearls though. I’m next up to be a senior man and I hope I’m a good one. I’m going to bookmark this for future reading. It’s a good article.
    Ps overheard at kitchen table “I’ve got underwear older than that f@”&ing kid”

  • Jeff Chandler says:

    Very, very well said! Thanks Shawn!

  • Ted Meserole says:

    Very well written and very factual with good advice. I learned so much from senior men all the years I was an active member. I even learned from those experienced who were reluctant to share until they thought I was worthy. It was worth my effort to gain their trust!!!. I always felt this way, including my sharing my knowledge from my first position as an officer to my last as Chief.

  • Tim Wilkinson says:

    Don’t forget there are also Senior Women that have valuable insight. I know that the article means no ill will but words do matter and the fire service will not continue to improve unless we choose our words carefully. We need to be inclusive in everything we do and say.

    • anchorpoint1 says:

      The “Senior Man” is a position title with responsibilities and pay that go along with it. We have had female senior men as well. Whenever my department changes our contract that title will change.

  • Dena says:

    This was wonderful. Thank you Shawn. I am pretty lucky to have a great senior man, and I use a lot of these tricks. Just Simply showing him the respect he’s earned over 25 years. He doesn’t have to jump
    Into the training, just be around and give perspective. It’s great to have a senior guy who is happy where he is, and steps up when he needs to. Thanks Eric Moore for being a great senior guy! And to Bolduc, you’re the best, but I need you to take the next LT test!

  • Chris says:

    “Education without experience is only theory” – great point, Shawn. We need to listen to the men (and women) who’ve been there when things got tough.

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