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Goodbye, fire service: When leaving is more bitter than sweet

How to depart the fire service on a positive note and on your own terms

Upset Firefighters Over loss from fire

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I recently spoke with some friends who had less-than-positive experiences when leaving their careers in the fire service. It’s a topic that has come up regularly over the years.

All firefighters know that leaving the career field is hard. Being a firefighter is more than a job; it’s a way of life, with an immersive culture and, if you are lucky, a strong and supportive community. Separating from that can prove very difficult.

But, as difficult as it is, it’s even harder when the separation isn’t so much sad as it is painful. This can happen when the experience of being on the job and leaving it creates more than a sense of loss; it creates bitterness.

Over the years, I’ve heard many stories:

  • “I left my department because of poor management. We had back-to-back horrible fire chiefs and the current one is possibly the worst. I had six more years until mandatory retirement, and I walked away.”
  • “After 15 years on the job, I married a coworker and we decided to have a baby. We both felt good about the job as single people, but as a couple and as a family, we felt no support. It was just assumed by everyone that I would leave the job because of the pregnancy and that’s what I did. My husband left not long after.”
  • “After over 20 years on the job, I got injured on a fire and was off work for months. When I came back, people acted like I was a liability, and several people were clear that they didn’t want to work with me. These were guys I had mentored when they first came on the job.”
  • “The department leadership made it clear to me that I would never promote past where I already was. I had always worked for necessary change and this didn’t make me popular with some of the department leaders. When I finally retired, earlier than I had planned, the chief did not even acknowledge that I was leaving.”

Whether someone stays three or 30 years on the job, all leaders should want members to leave for the right reasons and feel good about that decision. There are valid reasons for exiting the fire service, such as the desire to pursue a different career path or a shift in personal priorities. But a singular negative experience, poor leadership, isolation, or ineffective management should never be why members leave.

Is station culture pushing people out?

How can leaders mitigate feelings of frustration, anger or bitterness among those they work with? What can members do to make sure they depart the fire service on a positive note and on their own terms?

Leaders, at all levels, must first pay attention. Are there individuals on the job who are being isolated, treated differently or unfairly scapegoated? Is there unequal access to opportunities to pursue specialized training, advisory committee membership or promotions? If so, then you must ask why.

Are policies and procedures fair and equitable and reflective of department values? Is support available for members who are having difficulties? If firefighters seem to isolate themselves or exhibit a “bad attitude,” talk to them and find out what has contributed to this situation.

No one comes on the job assuming they will be bitter and miserable for their entire career. Every probie is excited and positive about the future. If something happens along the way to change that, as a leader you must investigate the cause and do what you can to remedy it.

But individuals have a responsibility too. All firefighters should have some kind of career plan, and this includes a plan for the end. Nothing is forever and having a sense of the right time to leave can dissipate the sense of disappointment and loss that comes if one assumes that the present situation will continue forever. We all age, our capabilities and interests change, and the day will come for all of us to hang up our gear for the last time.

Take ownership and look to the future

The key to making this separation something meaningful instead of painful is preparation for all involved. Solve small problems along the way before they become big, insurmountable ones. Keep the lines of communication open in all directions. Show commitment to and appreciation for all members throughout their time on the job. Give people a sense of legacy – that their actions today will have a lasting and positive impact on the future.

Someone once said that bitterness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die. Once you leave the job, what’s done is done and there is little sense in reliving the past. Give yourself credit for the strength you had to both contribute and endure. Look forward and use your experiences, for better and for worse, toward making the world a better place.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.