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Retired firefighter shares “salty” wisdom for new recruits

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

Although technology and society are ever-evolving, one local firefighter has found that it’s become increasingly necessary to explain to younger generations in his field that such things as farting-Minion ringtones aren’t a good idea.

Brent Gaskey, who retired as a lieutenant with the Lebanon Fire District last November after a 31-year career overall, offers that vital gem among other pointers in his new book, “Captain Salty’s Book of Fire Service Wisdom,” a manual of sorts for new firefighters entering the service during their probationary term (a.k.a. “probies”).

Of course, Gaskey’s been on that end, too. When he entered the field after graduating from Sweet Home High School in 1991, he found himself in a world dominated by Korean War and World War II veterans, men with a certain way of doing things. He learned quickly, he said, that when they told him to jump, he was to ask, “How high?”

But as he moved up the ranks, he noticed that subsequent classes of “probies” consisted of millennials and then Gen Zers.

“They’ve been raised with the Internet,” the now-50-year-old explained. “They’ve never not had a phone in their hand. Many of the things that I grew up understanding and learning in an analog world, they just don’t get, and they don’t understand it.”

They had no problem with physically laborious tasks, he said. However, they didn’t understand unspoken expectations, like cleaning the kitchen, making the coffee and starting house chores early.

“This current generation that’s coming in, they’ve never had that expectation in their life before,” he said. “So when you put them in a situation where everyone my age is asking, ‘How come the new guy isn’t getting up and doing what he’s supposed to be doing?’ Well, he’s never been told. So there was a lot of miscommunication between the two groups.”

It’s an expensive expectation. Onboarding a new hire takes three to four months and costs about $30,000, Gaskey explained. If the new guys don’t pass their probationary periods, that’s taxpayer money going out the door. Not that house chores would be a reason to fail.

“Captain Salty” is an attempt to inform new hires what to expect and to know what was expected from them. It’s meant to unite the old and new, then help them figure out why older generations prefer phone calls over texts and why younger generations aren’t cleaning the toilets.

Brent Gaskey during his career as a firefighter for Lebanon Fire District. Contributed photo

“There’s explanations in the book because sometimes those guys don’t get it,” Gaskey said. “They don’t understand the same way that maybe you or I would understand. It’s interesting to see the differences in the way people are raised now.”

The book itself describes it as “a conversation; one between a new ‘probie’ and a salty old company officer that is looking to pass on his knowledge to the new guy before he’s put out to pasture. This salty engine officer is the guy that shoots straight with you and tells you how it is without sugarcoating it.”

Becoming a firefighter is not just about passing tests and meeting qualifications, Gaskey writes. It’s also about becoming part of a second, paramilitary family and having the characteristics of someone who fits within it.

Over its 155 pages, “Captain Salty” reviews the job’s basic tenets (including 11 fire-service commandments such as “Thou shalt” clean up after yourself, teach the ones that come after you, and have a life beyond the station doors”) and straight talk about what’s expected of probies.

For those hoping to enter a firefighting family’s good graces, Gaskey provides such tips as arriving early, starting the coffee, waking up for fire calls, seeing others’ opinions outside of your own political and personal views and don’t park the fire truck like a jerk.

There’s other worthwhile advice, too. Don’t cook fish in the microwave. Don’t look at porn while on schedule. Use phones sparingly. Keep personal stuff to your own computer, and don’t let others access it, because you may end up with backdrops of unicorns and rainbows. Also, don’t use unprofessional ringtones (farting minions, turkey calls, hard-rock songs, etc.) that might go off while you’re telling somebody that a loved one has died.

“Captain Salty” also offers insight into the older generation’s distrust of new technology, why firefighters do what they do, driving the fire truck, managing the “trauma bucket,” getting along and understanding that sometimes you must do things differently because you’re smaller or female.

“You have to be able to rethink things and change some stuff up to make it where it works for you,” Gaskey said.

Gaskey’s father and three uncles were volunteer firefighters for Sweet Home Fire & Ambulance District, which gave him as a child an opportunity to witness the camaraderie among public-safety personnel. It was enough for him to know he wanted to become a firefighter, although he did consider law enforcement for a while. He has then-LFD captain Dale Miner to thank for putting him in the right line of fire, so to speak.

“I just knew I wanted to help people and make a difference in their lives,” Gaskey said.

Miner took Gaskey on a ride-along, and that sealed the deal.

“It really hooked me,” Gaskey recalled. “Police officers do an exceptional job, and those guys have the hardest job of anybody in public safety as far as I’m concerned. But they’re there because some situation’s so out of control that they have to bring somebody in to fix it. Firefighters kind of do the same thing, but people want them there. You have an opportunity to help people on their worst day. So I kind of took the easy route.”

Gaskey poses high above a scene where a forest fire is being contained. Contributed photo

While still in high school, Gaskey obtained his emergency medical technician (EMT) license, then began work as a summer wildland firefighter for the Oregon Dept. of Forestry after he graduated. During the wet months, Gaskey interned at both LFD and SHFAD, working 24-hour shifts from one place to the next to earn money for school and gain experience.

“I just wanted to absorb it all,” he said.

Finding firefighting work used to be “extremely” competitive, Gaskey said. He once applied for a position in Tualatin only to learn about 3,000 applicants were chasing 17 jobs. But a fire marshal position at his old stomping grounds in Sweet Home opened with only a “handful” of applicants, and he landed it in his early 20s.

“It was interesting being the white-shirt, gold-badge, 22-year-old running around,” he said. “I had to learn to grow up pretty quick on that and accept a lot of responsibility. Usually that’s a position people work their way into.”

It was his first paid position – one that didn’t pay very well, he said – and he stayed a few years, learning code enforcement and “rounding himself out” a little, experience-wise. However, 1996 proved to be a hard year for the city, which was forced to cut several public safety and public works positions due to a “significant” budget shortfall.

Luckily, however, LFD was expanding and Gaskey managed to secure a firefighting position that lasted until his retirement. He’d planned to hang on a few more years, he said, but he wanted to leave before he became “the grumpy guy nobody wanted to work with.”

However, he added, “I wasn’t ready to go sit in the rocking chair at home and not do anything.”

Now he works as the emergency management coordinator through Samaritan Health at Lebanon Community Hospital, a position that allows him to use his skills yet doesn’t require a “backbreaking” 56-hour work week. He oversees the National Incident Management System (NIMS), making sure the hospital’s prepared for any set of emergencies, from natural disasters to terrorist threats or any unusual major incident.

He’s also not done publishing books, either. Right now, he’s working on a postapocalyptic novel he describes as “kind of a ‘Yellowstone’-meets-’Mad Max’” and continuing the “Captain Salty” series geared toward the “senior man” (those who find themselves in positions of informal leadership) and company officers.

The titular character, it should be explained, is a nod to someone Gaskey worked with during his fire-service career.

“We had a guy at the station who was kind of this crusty old veteran,” he said. “If you wanted to know something, you went and talked to this guy. He knew everything. He was in the Coast Guard, so everybody just called him ‘Captain Salty’ because he had been at sea so much that he had salt falling off of him. New York City uses the term for their old, crusty, veteran-kind of guys.”

Copies of his book sell on Amazon (https://amzn.to/41UCkQM) at an average clip of 40 to 50 per month, enough to pay for a trip with his wife to attend a book conference in Las Vegas.

“I feel like I’m helping somebody. That’s really what I wanted,” he said. “I was given an opportunity to work with a lot of different people and maybe different viewpoints that maybe some fire departments don’t have, so I hope that encourages some people that maybe wouldn’t traditionally enter into the fire service. We need a more diverse workforce.”