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Should I stay or should I go?

Key questions to ask yourself before leaving your fire department


An empty locker left behind by a recent resignation.

Photo/Ben Thompson

When I joined the fire department, I was told that if I ever became unhappy, I had three choices: Accept it, change it or leave it.

But back then, leaving one fire department to join another really wasn’t an option. Jobs were scarce, and the competition was fierce. I was one of over 3,000 people who had tested for the job. I felt lucky to have a place with a fire department at all.

Now, amid The Great Resignation,” the job market has changed. Everywhere I look fire departments are aggressively trying to fill vacancies, offering sign-on bonuses, tuition reimbursement, and promises that they will never use firefighters to staff ambulances. Some departments are even going so far as to officially promote their belief in aggressive interior firefighting to draw applicants.

This recruiting frenzy has led firefighters from all over to jump ship in search of greener pastures. If you are considering taking that leap, here are a few questions you need to ask yourself:

Have you fulfilled your obligation to your current department?

In my home state of Alabama, if a fire department puts you through the fire academy, you owe them at least two years of service. If you try to leave before those two years are up, they can hold you responsible to pay back the money they spent to get you certified.

But even if money isn’t an issue for you, two years seems like a fair trade for any department that goes through the tedious process of hiring you. Fire departments operate on a razor-thin budget and hiring a new employee is an expensive process. When you leave, those resources used to get you into the field are gone, leaving firefighters at the station level to pick up the slack.

Before you go looking for a better opportunity, be sure you’ve at least given your current department and your fellow firefighters the consideration they deserve.

Why is the other fire department hiring?

Dont allow yourself to be blinded by sign-on bonuses or extravagant promises. Fire departments are just one part of a citys government. You need to look at the city as a whole to get an idea of what you’ll be signing up for.

Are they building three new fire stations to cover a new area of town or did half their workforce quit after their paychecks bounced?

Sometimes the answer to this question isn’t limited to just one thing. If you dont know anyone to ask personally, read the local news to get an idea of what’s going on.

Are you leaving because you dont want to be assigned to an ambulance?

For many firefighters, being stuck in an ambulance is a nightmare. But for some, especially firefighter/paramedics, it’s a daily reality.

Being sequestered to an ambulance for most of your firefighting career can make the most well-loved occupation in the world feel like a dead-end job. I have personally witnessed coworkers take a pay cut to join other departments that didn’t transport.

The ambulance (aka The box”) has been sending firefighters running for years. But, I am going to make an unpopular prediction: That department you are considering transferring to may not staff ambulances now, but there is a high probability that they will in the future. Here’s my reasoning: As the private EMS agencies that many municipalities depend on for ambulance transport suffer from their own staffing woes, ambulance coverage and response times will continue to get worse. As the situation reaches its boiling point citizens will demand better service. And, whether we like it or not, the fire department will be seen as the most likely candidate to meet that demand.

In my area, I am seeing it now. Departments that have traditionally never offered transport services are purchasing ambulances. And members I know who left to get away from one departments ambulance have found themselves back on one, just wearing a different uniform.

What do you want out of the job?

Get out a pen and a piece of paper. List it out. Be specific. Is it better pay? Better equipment? Better stations? A more family-like” atmosphere? Write it all down.

After you complete your list, ask yourself another question: Is there anything I can do to make these things happen where I am today? Could a college degree bring you better pay? Does your department have a committee you could join to give input on equipment purchasing? Could you organize a night out, maybe catch a baseball game with your crew? Sometimes the easiest opportunities to overlook are the ones that are right under our noses.

But if you’ve tried it all and youre still not happy, do your research and go.

Ben Thompson is a battalion chief in Birmingham, Alabama. In 2016, Thompson developed his department’s first mobile integrated health (MIH) program and shared his experiences from building the program at TEDxBirmingham. Thompson was the recipient of the 2016 Emergency Medical Service Provider of the Year Award and the 2018 Joe E. Acker Award for Innovation in Emergency Medical Services, both in Jefferson County, Alabama. He has a bachelor’s degree from Athens State University in Alabama and is a licensed paramedic. Connect with Thompson through his website