Resurrection of The Senior Guy
I have seen a growing number of posts and articles calling attention the disappearance and subsequent need for the “senior guy” lately. The concept of an older, experienced firefighter just itching to take the new fireman under his wing and show him the ropes is certainly a desirable one. In many ways the senior guy represents everything many are trying to bring back to our profession. A firefighter, not an officer, who has a wealth of knowledge, real-world experience, and a burning desire to share what he knows with the newest members, is just what the doctor ordered right? Well, perhaps the concept of the senior guy isn’t the problem but the expectation is. Could the senior guy be just another part of our craft which we have failed to adapt with the times?
Let’s break down the traits of the senior guy that make such a person so desirable and necessary in our firehouses. First, the senior guy was a firefighter. No rank makes him that much easier to approach and enforce the all-important “unofficial” rules of the house or department. It also provides a common ground for other firefighters to approach him without fear of official reprimand or remediation. The senior guy offers that big brother feel rather than the dad complex which often gets assigned to our officers. Next, the senior guy knows his stuff! He has been on for 15, 20, 25 years or longer! In that time period he has taken in more runs than most of us could dream of. He has seen it all and done it all yet remains modest and continues to learn even though he is likely well into the twilight of his career. You will certainly have to be on your “A-game” if you are going to get one past this guy. Finally, the senior guy’s main mission in life is to teach and develop the probies. The senior guy is often considered the most knowledgeable person in the station or department, so who better to spread their knowledge than him? Even better, he WANTS to share his knowledge! He knows his days are counting down which means he needs to share everything he can so his legacy will live on through others. The senior guy
basically enables what all of us would want in a model firefighter. The real question is; does he really exist?
The short answer is sort of. No one can dispute the stories told of people who had the senior guy so he does exist, or at least he did exist. I think the reason we seem to come up empty in our search for a senior guy these days is because we haven’t changed his image as our departments have changed. With the exception of large metro departments, staffing is falling to what many consider unacceptable levels. The days of 5, 4, and even 3 men companies are a thing of the past in many corners of our country. Sure there are anomalies such as FDNY, Chicago, LA, and Boston who still have what most of us would consider more than adequate staffing, but they too are seeing cuts as well. Not only does less staffing mean fewer people, it also means many of the tenured members have found their way out the doors. Whether it was through normal attrition, collective bargaining, early retirement buyouts, health issues, or layoffs the average age of firefighters, particularly fire officers, seems to be getting lower all the time. The effect of all this is a seriously shrinking pool of prospective senior guy candidates.
Part of the problem is the iconic vision we have in our minds of who our senior guy should be: the slightly gray-haired, weathered face, middle-aged, salty fireman just waiting to save us all from the perils of probation. The reality of the situation is we need to adapt what a senior guy is to fit the makeup of our firehouses. Sometimes our senior guy may not be so senior. He may only have as few as 5, 10, or 15 years on the job. This means he may not have a ton of experience or knowledge BUT he has been through probation, he knows how the department works, he knows more than the newest member, and can still be a valuable shoulder to lean on for the overwhelmed new member. But wait, who says the senior guy even has to be a firefighter? What if you only have a 2 or 3 man company? One of the crew is going to be the officer and he, or she, may very likely be the most experienced member of the group. While it will pose challenges, sometimes that officer will be forced to be both the officer and senior guy of the crew. That is a slippery slope in some cases but you may have to make do depending on your staffing levels. Speaking of crews, does the senior guy necessarily need to be on your crew? Does he even need to be at your station or a member of your department for that matter? Perhaps there is someone who fits the bill that you see at shift change, train with from a mutual aid agency, or someone who you have met at a conference or through social media who is willing to provide the mentoring you need. While these individuals may not have that specific in-house knowledge a traditional senior man had, they can still be invaluable in your development.
The moral of the story is perhaps we need to stop searching for a unicorn in a field full of horses. Maybe our expectation of the traditional senior man is just not practical these days. Like many things in the fire service, we may be forced to do more with less. If we can learn to fight fire with fewer people, surely we can figure out how to continue the tradition of mentor-ship as well. If your organization is fortunate enough to still have a traditional senior man covet, cherish, and protect this vital position. If you are one of the many firefighters searching aimlessly where the senior man used to be, perhaps it is time to adjust your perception of what that individual looks like and where you will find them. Sometimes we have to let certain traditions become part of our history in order to build new ones. In the case of the senior man, it is time we resurrect his spirit into the form which fits our department in modern times.