The 5-year firefighter: Advice for firefighters and their fire departments

Five years deep is a critical point in a firefighter’s career – not a rookie nor a seasoned veteran, with plenty of growth ahead

By Jeff Hall

From the academy to retirement, a firefighter’s career is marked by many milestones. The five-year mark is one such milestone. Not quite a rookie but also not quite seasoned, the five-year firefighter is the middle child of the firehouse. By that point, hopefully, they have amassed a good deal of knowledge, skill and experience on the job.

All things considered, the five-year firefighter has a critical role in the leadership and direction of their organization. There is perhaps no better gauge of a fire department’s readiness and culture than the five-year firefighter.

"There is perhaps no better gauge of a fire department’s readiness and culture than the five-year firefighter," writes Hall. (Photo/Steve Johnson, University of Arizona Health Sciences)

Let’s consider advice for firefighters at this stage, from their perspective, plus guidance for the fire departments employing these members in a sweet spot of their career.

Advice for firefighters five years deep

The five-year mark is a key time to pause and consider career trajectory. Are you accomplishing all that you hoped? What are you next steps and goals? Following are some tips to help you answer these questions and stay on the right track.

Re-humble and re-tool yourself: In just five years, you have probably experienced a breadth of training and incidents to boost your confidence on the job. The blunt truth is that you are not as good as you think you are. Resist the urge to become comfortable in your routine. At any given time, a citizen’s call may demand a skill or tool that you consider rare or unlikely.

Remember the enthusiasm and humility you had during the process of entering the fire service, and let it be your calibration. From EMS to hazardous materials to fire suppression, being a part of today’s fire service means wearing multiple hats. And wearing multiple hats means that studying, training and drilling must continue throughout an entire career.

Master the basics: We all emerged from the academy with basic skills freshly drilled into our minds. Over time, some of those skills have been exercised consistently while others have likely weakened. Identify both good and bad habits that you have developed, and recommit to mastering basic skills in fire suppression and other areas of operation. Junior personnel under you depend on you sharing your skills and experience. And company officers depend on you to be in the right place, with the right tools, with the right mindset.

Be fit for duty: This should go without saying, but physical fitness and personal health are vital to your job. The firehouse kitchen table is important not just for our cohesion as a team, but also for our nutrition and health on the job. Nutrition and fitness issues cause some firefighters to suffer from chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and hypertension. If necessary, seek resources for other concerns like tobacco use, alcoholism and mental health. Some on-the-job risks cannot be controlled individually, but there are many that can. Evaluate your current fitness and state of health. Strive to remain or become the fit firefighter that you would want responding to your own family’s emergency.

Understand your benefits and retirement: If you’re not already doing it, take a proactive role in understanding the many details of your salary, benefits and retirement packages. Senior firefighters, current retirees, HR representatives and local union members are all great resources for information.

Municipalities of all sizes have experienced fiscal difficulties, leading many to make changes to firefighters’ salaries, retirement plans, insurance coverage and paid leave. Study your financial options, and work hard to understand the implications for you and your family.

Get up or get out: After five years, you most likely have at least a decent understanding of what the job entails. Be honest with yourself about your goals and whether your motivations about the fire service and your department outweigh any drawbacks. If you still enjoy the job, challenge yourself to continually improve. If you think a move to a different department or even a different career may be fitting, consider doing it now.

Tips for the fire department

When it comes to the organization itself, there are several tips leaders should keep in mind related to the five-year members and the important role they play in the overall organizational culture.

Focus on apprenticeship: A main pillar of firefighter education and training continues to be apprenticeship-style learning under senior firefighters and fire officers. Sandwiched between the rookies below and the senior firefighters above, five-year firefighters are excellent indicators of their respective department’s apprenticeship, culture and traditions. They illustrate the degree of knowledge and skill being passed down from experienced firefighters and demonstrate their own competencies to newer firefighters.

How well have your firefighters’ skills been developed at the crew level? Do they know the history of their department and the fire service in general? Do they enumerate and demonstrate the core values in the department’s mission statement? After five years, if a firefighter does not have keen awareness, appreciation and understanding of their department’s core values and traditions, then the department must recognize the issue and commit to resolving this issue. When addressing deficiencies, it is important to treat the dynamic primarily as a professional development and cultural issue, not a disciplinary one.

Recognize the “rankless and thankless leaders”: By the five-year mark, many firefighters find themselves in positions to teach, coach, mentor and orient newer members of their departments. They may serve as nozzlemen, driver/engineers, supervisory paramedics, acting officers, instructors or any of many other influential positions and roles.

Among the five-year group, you’re likely to find driven firefighters who invest their own time and money into improving their skill sets and special interests. With development, these individuals will be the next generation of subject-matter experts of the fire service. Understand that the motivated five-year firefighter provides an invaluable, rankless leadership that strengthens the overall mission. Encourage your company officers and managing officers to support this leadership.

Watch for retention issues: Every fire department grapples with the challenges of recruiting new trainees and retaining existing firefighters. For a plethora of reasons – fiscal problems, management tensions and normal retirements – organizations may experience emergent staffing crises in just a matter of months.

In this data-driven age, fire departments should strive to keep records of exit interviews of the personnel that they lose before retirement, especially among those with five years of service or less. Fire department leadership must hold itself accountable for identifying key reasons that firefighters leave prematurely and commit to pursuing reasonable improvements whenever possible.

Build tomorrow’s leaders

The five-year firefighter is just one barometer of tomorrow’s senior firefighters and chief officers. From the perspectives of both the firefighter and the organization, the objectives are professional development and succession planning. Ultimately, we all share the same goals of serving our citizens, strengthening our organizations, and leaving the fire service better than we found it.

About the author

Jeff Hall is a fire sergeant in Birmingham, Alabama, and serves on his department's hazmat response team. With a Master of Public Health specializing in industrial hygiene from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Hall has conducted research on various health and safety topics related to the fire service. He is also an adjunct hazmat instructor with the Alabama Fire College.

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