How to manage ‘This-Isn’t-What-I-Signed-Up-for Syndrome’

Building resilience within our members so they trust that the fire service is still the career for them, even as it evolves

Long before the fire service faced its current staffing crisis, there was a common refrain heard throughout the ranks: “This isn’t what I signed up for.” This sentiment is as old as the profession, although it has certainly ramped up as the fire service has evolved to include more fire-based EMS and all-hazards response types.

Chief Bob Horton wrote about this issue, focusing on how some fire departments are failing to properly communicate the nature of the job to our newest recruits, and the article sparked considerable discussion online.

Beyond redefining our identity and retooling our marketing efforts, how can we build resilience in our members so they continue to believe in the profession, even as it evolves? It begins with our recruits and extends throughout the ranks.

Beyond redefining our identity and retooling our marketing efforts, how can we build resilience in our members so they continue to believe in the profession, even as it evolves? It begins with our recruits and extends throughout the ranks.
Beyond redefining our identity and retooling our marketing efforts, how can we build resilience in our members so they continue to believe in the profession, even as it evolves? It begins with our recruits and extends throughout the ranks. (Photo/MCT)

Recruit confusion

I have no biological children of my own; however, running a fire academy certainly requires a certain level of parenting-like skills. I’m often called upon to counsel fire academy recruits regarding everything from skill-related issues to personal and family matters. Some are easy to manage; some require more professional intervention.

It is rewarding to watch new recruits grow and develop skills as future firefighters. I have seen some whom I initially thought would never make it actually become very successful and others for whom I had all the confidence in the world, but they ultimately failed or dropped out of the academy after realizing that it really wasn’t what they signed up for.

It is hard to see a potentially great future member fizzle out, having realized the fire service isn’t all they imagined it would be. That’s why we try our best to make it clear to the recruits early in the process that the fire service is multi-faceted; it’s not only fighting fires.

How to build resilience among recruits:

  • Reiterate that this is NOT “Chicago Fire” or similar shows. This is the real world.
  • Talk numbers. Detail the call volume stats for your area so they understand the fire to EMS ratio. EMS is job security for the fire service! 80% of our calls are EMS. The public expects and appreciates us for providing basic and advanced life care. This is a positive for us!
  • Explain the all-hazards nature of the job, focusing on the enhanced opportunities to serve and the myriad ways to test their mettle – beyond fire.
  • Train them to be proficient in basic firefighting, but emphasize that is the foundation; there is much more to the job.

Training vs. reality

No matter how hard we try, there are some recruits who, upon graduating from the academy, will comment on how the training does not simulate real-world incidents. For some, it comes as a shock and disappointment.

Fire academies are fast-paced, and recruits learn a lot in a short amount of time. The training is precise and detailed on every aspect in firefighting and life safety. For example, here in California, we are governed by State Fire Training and its corresponding curriculum. It is basic steps in a fast-paced environment. Most recruits find that responding on real incidents and performing tasks such as pulling hose, throwing ladders, donning breathing apparatus, etc., are not performed exactly as during academy training – a controlled environment.

Recruits need to fully understand that in the academy, we train for the necessary tasks related to the protection of life, safety and environment, but fire department training – and hands-on experience – will provide a fuller picture of realistic calls.

How to build resilience through training:

  • Communicate often and with emphasis that there is a difference between the training environment and the real world. They will, in fact, continue to hone their skills in real-world scenarios. They must have patience.
  • Focus on the mission, underscoring that this training is ultimately creating the foundation from which they will serve their community.
  • Emphasize that with new construction and newer fire codes, we run fewer structure fires. By training more, we will be more proficient at fighting structure fires, because we see less structure fires and more EMS calls.

Culture shock

Once it’s time to graduate to an actual department, some members discover that fire service culture isn’t what they thought it would be, whether disconnected from stories they heard from family or friends, what they saw on TV, or other visions of the brotherhood and sisterhood.

Some recruits go to a large agency where they get assigned to a busy station and run 15 calls a shift. Some burn out early, overwhelmed by the action. Some find themselves disappointed about being at a small agency that responds to more mutual-aid calls than incidents in their own jurisdiction.

Some recruits may find themselves at agencies where they simply do not “fit.” They may be at a station where a hostile work environment persists or where personnel are disgruntled or unhappy. Though they may have had some idea of firehouse behavior, recruits may find it difficult to feel welcome or find their place at their new agency.

Although each agency has a different culture, there are some key points to keep in mind about how to adjust to a new work environment.

How to build resilience among members suffering from “culture shock”:

  • Review the job description with them. Few candidates actually read this. Sit down with them and explain their roles. This should be the captain’s job the first day of reporting for duty. Many assume the rookie knows, but most times, they do not.
  • For members burning out from high call volume, rotate them to the truck, hazmat squad or other unit that goes on fewer medical calls than an ALS or BLS engine. Give them a break.
  • For members disappointed by low call volume, get them more involved in other departmental activities – public education, prevention, training, disaster preparedness. PIO, etc. Make them feel involved, like a stakeholder. Idle hands are the devil’s playground!
  • If a member feels they do not fit in, talk with them. This may be a “symptom” of another problem. Perhaps they are being bullied or harassed by another member in the agency but not sure how to address possible harassment. Provide support, let them know we have confidential counseling. Talk to their immediate supervisor to see if they have some insights.

All-hazards and traumatic response

Years ago, firefighters would respond on significant wildfires that would take down communities once or twice in their entire career. Today, firefighters (at least here in California) are responding on wildfires that decimate entire communities two to three times in a year. Throw in pandemics, active shooter incidents, political unrest, assault on first responders, traumatic medical calls, etc., and it’s easy to see why some firefighters grow resentful, become exhausted or feel duped about the realities of their chosen career.

We are seeing more significant and trauma-related calls. We train to perform the tasks of protecting life, property and the environment, but we receive limited training in dealing with the emotional side of what we are exposed to.

How to build resilience among members who struggle with the evolving nature of the job:

  • Reiterate how much the community depends on and appreciates our EMS service.
  • Emphasize the need to focus on the department mission – life safety – which takes many forms.
  • Look into having a mental health counselor or peer support team for the organization.
  • Encourage them to surround themselves with empathetic, trustworthy people who can remind them that they are not alone. The pain of traumatic events can lead some people to isolate themselves, but it’s important to accept help and support from those who care about you.
  • Help them build mental resilience by explaining their options with critical incident stress management (CISM), employee assistance programs (EAPs), peer support or even a licensed therapist.
  • Reiterate often that asking for help is not only OK, it is encouraged.

Promotion problems

Career crises can also emerge through the promotional process. You may have an engineer who performs their job flawlessly. They are a great employee, and you push them to promote based on their performance. It’s a natural next step, right? The engineer takes the position only to be disappointed, as management “isn’t what they signed up for.” Then they leave. We must remember that just because they are proficient in one position doesn’t mean they are cut out for supervision, management and leading – and we shouldn’t force it. Forcing a promotion can be a letdown for both the employee and the administration.

How to build resilience among newly promoted members having a crisis of confidence:

  • Provide mentoring to newly promoted members. This can be done both in house or through “mutual aid mentoring” from neighboring agencies.
  • Make sure the person actually wants the position. Do not force someone into a position they do not want.
  • Give them grace. Like a rookie firefighter, seasoned personnel will make mistakes when newly promoted. Let them live and learn.
  • Provide them tools and resources to be successful. Many times, we promote personnel, but fail to provide classes, training or resources to ensure they are successful.

Chief-level stress

The “this isn’t what I signed up for” sentiment is not limited to rank and file. I have many fire chief constituents who say the same thing about serving as fire chief. Moving to the top spot is a huge transition. The buck stops with you – a heavy responsibility that some struggle to accept. In fact, many will stop just below the rank of fire chief to avoid the stress from the position.

How to build resilience among chiefs:

  • Build a network of trusted confidants. Include a few with your profession and those not in your profession. It makes a good balance to have both.
  • Become mindful. Take up meditation, yoga or something helpful to relieve stress. You may even consider a licensed qualified therapist to help deal with the stress.
  • Ensure chief officers understand the nature of the job. There are countless resources to help with this, including this piece from myself: “A week in the life of a chief: ‘It’s lonely at the top.’”

Final thoughts

Hiring or promoting the right people for the right position is not easy. Just as quickly as our world changes, the responsibilities of positions change as well. We need to ensure new hires and newly promoted are receiving exactly what they signed up for!

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