‘This is not what I signed up for’: Why some firefighters simply don’t understand the job

We must ask key questions to determine where we are going wrong in communicating firefighter job expectations


Chief Horton's article sparked considerable discussion on Facebook. Join the conversation here. 

Fire service leaders also weigh in on the hot-button issue here.

It remains perplexing that you could walk into a fire station today and still hear a firefighter grumble, “This is not what I signed up for.”

The reference is typically related to frequent response to low-acuity medical calls, public assists, and perhaps some other service or social needs.

I have been in this industry for 20 years and the calls have always been dominant in the low-acuity medical and social needs categories. What we are experiencing today is, in fact, what I signed up for all those years ago.

Are we recruiting and hiring for firefighters who will be successful in the next 30 years, or are we recruiting and hiring firefighters who fit the mold of the last 30 years?
Are we recruiting and hiring for firefighters who will be successful in the next 30 years, or are we recruiting and hiring firefighters who fit the mold of the last 30 years? (Photo/Getty Images)

So, if we continue to have firefighters who are confused by the types of calls to which they are most likely to respond, then where have we gone wrong?

  • Have we not marketed the position description correctly?
  • Have we not recruited with a mindset geared toward candidate success in today’s fire service, not to mention tomorrow’s fire service?
  • Have we hired the right people, but the culture is not ready to embrace the all-hazards response organization?

Let’s keep these questions in mind as we consider some solutions to this ongoing issue.

Marketing the position

The position description and recruitment flyer serve as the gateway for applicants to initiate a relationship with your organization. Are these documents “honest” with the potential applicant? Do they clearly articulate the expectations for the role of the position in your agency? A random search of entry-level firefighter recruitments in the Daily Dispatch revealed four organizations currently recruiting, one of whom had a noticeable emphasis on non-emergency calls. Transparency in the position description and recruitment flyer is paramount to drawing the right candidates in the door for your organization.

Be deliberate about the photos used to showcase your agency, plus the terms used to describe the daily activities of a firefighter and the characteristics that will make a person successful if they were chosen to fulfill that role. Photos in the recruitment flyer should not be full of flames and firefighters in turnouts and SCBA. Signal to your target audience that this job is about much more than that. Include photos that showcase your community risk reduction efforts and community connection through public relations and education events (see PDF below). Take stock of the priorities for your agency, audit the position description and recruitment flyer, and adapt them, if necessary, to reflect the expected experience in your organization, today and in the future.


Photos in the recruitment flyer should not be full of flames and firefighters in turnouts and SCBA. Signal to your target audience that this job is about much more than that. Include photos that showcase your community risk reduction efforts and community connection through public relations and education events.

Looking to the future

Most systems have a 30-year time investment to full retirement. For a firefighter whom we are hiring today, that means this person will retire in the year 2050. Let that soak in for a minute. With the speed of technology, our industry will look quite different in five years, let alone 30 years.

Are we recruiting and hiring for firefighters who will be successful in the next 30 years, or are we recruiting and hiring firefighters who fit the mold of the last 30 years? We still have firefighters in the organization who struggle with using computers. The next generation of firefighters will likely be interacting with drones, robotics, artificial intelligence, interactive heads-up displays, and similar tech products. We need to hire firefighters who will be successful in that environment.

It is time to let go of the frustration of learning to integrate younger generations into the fire service. Millennials have ascended into leadership positions, and Generation Z has been in the workforce for over five years. Audit your position descriptions and recruitment documents to ensure that the firefighters you hire today will be successful in your organization in the decades to come.

Redefining firefighter identity

The fire service is deeply rooted in tradition. With that comes a culture and “identity” – what a firefighter “ought” to be like and the heroic tasks in which a firefighter is “supposed” to be engaged.

The opportunity to fulfill this important role for the community does exist, and it occurs daily across our country. However, most of the time, our firefighters are engaging with the community in ways that are meaningful but not necessarily “Instagram-worthy.” They are being heroes through upstream interventions, preventing emergencies from occurring in the first place. They are connecting their community members with solutions to their problems and even navigating a generation of seniors toward adapting to the challenges of aging in place. For a firefighter to realize a successful career, they will need to find joy in the success of the full spectrum of tasks expected from a modern-day firefighter.

Leaders, here’s what’s next

Reimagining our industry is no easy task. As humans, we have a bias to remain at the status quo and are generally loss averse, especially when it comes to changes to our identity. But this clear misalignment between our perceived identity and actual performance of our duties creates a dissonance in our workforce and serves as the root of the “not what I signed up for” feelings. This is, in fact, what we signed up for.

As leaders, we must take deliberate action to break this cycle. We must recruit for, and hire, firefighters whose values align with the roles and expectations of a modern and future-focused fire service. In doing so, we shall realize the benefits of a diversified workforce, a happier workforce, and improved productivity and organizational outcomes.

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