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The lure of alternative employment: Where will stressed-out firefighters go?

For some, the private sector beckons while others may explore career transitions within the trades – but we can stop this exodus

In the heart of every firefighter beats the passion for service, the drive to protect their communities, and the camaraderie forged amidst the uncertainty of what the shift will bring. However, beneath this noble exterior lies a stark reality: A significant number of firefighters are considering leaving the service due to soaring stress levels. According to FireRescue1’s What Firefighters Want survey, a staggering 42% of respondents expressed the possibility of departing from the fire service, citing stress as a primary factor. This alarming trend not only threatens the operational readiness of fire departments across the nation but also raises profound questions about retention strategies and the evolving landscape of firefighter demographics.

Read next: Are we at a fire service tipping point?

The stress conundrum

For generations, firefighters have confronted perilous situations with unwavering resolve, yet the invisible adversary of stress has emerged as a formidable foe. The nature of firefighting demands resilience in the face of adversity, but the cumulative toll of trauma, long hours and organizational pressures has taken its toll. The survey findings shed light on the pervasive impact of stress, prompting a critical examination of its root causes and potential remedies.

Many of these individuals once cherished their roles as firefighters, driven by a deep sense of purpose and a commitment to public service. However, the relentless onslaught of stress erodes this passion, sowing seeds of doubt and disillusionment. From sleepless nights haunted by traumatic memories to the strain on personal relationships, the toll of stress permeates every aspect of a firefighter’s life.

The lure of alternative employment

Amidst the turbulence of stress, a growing number of firefighters contemplate their exit strategy, seeking refuge in alternative employment avenues. For some, the allure of the private sector beckons, promising a respite from the rigors of firefighting and the opportunity for a fresh start. Others may explore career transitions within the trades, leveraging their skills and experience in emergency response to pursue roles in healthcare, security or risk management.

Furthermore, the attraction of stability and career advancement offered by the private sector presents an enticing proposition for firefighters grappling with burnout and disillusionment. Unlike the static nature of the fire service from an employment perspective, where the demands of the job often dictate unpredictable schedules and prolonged separations from loved ones, the private sector offers a semblance of work-life balance and financial security.

Generational dynamics and retention challenges

Compounding the retention challenges within the fire service are the generational dynamics reshaping the workforce landscape. Millennials and Generation Z, characterized by their digital fluency, entrepreneurial spirit and penchant for job mobility, present unique retention challenges compared to their predecessors. Unlike previous generations, who viewed firefighting as a lifelong vocation culminating in a pension, younger firefighters are more transient, driven by a quest for purpose, flexibility and career growth.

Moreover, the evolution of pension structures in recent years has altered the calculus of retirement decisions for firefighters. While pensions today offer more generous benefits compared to years past, the allure of early retirement or transitioning to the private sector remains enticing for firefighters grappling with stress and burnout.

Addressing the lack of connection

Central to addressing the retention challenges plaguing the fire service is the imperative of fostering a sense of connection and belonging among firefighters. Recognizing the unique needs and aspirations of younger generations, fire departments must adopt proactive measures to nurture a supportive and inclusive organizational culture.

This entails prioritizing initiatives that promote mental health and wellbeing, providing access to counseling services, peer support networks, and resilience training to help firefighters cope with the rigors of their profession. Additionally, fostering opportunities for mentorship, career development, and leadership advancement can empower younger firefighters to envision a long-term future within the fire service, anchored by a sense of purpose and belonging.

Furthermore, leveraging technology and digital platforms can facilitate communication and collaboration across generational divides, bridging the gap between seasoned veterans and the next generation of firefighters. By embracing innovation and inclusivity, fire departments can cultivate a vibrant and resilient workforce capable of confronting the challenges of the future with unity and resolve.

Final thoughts

Stress looms large within the fire service, threatening the retention of dedicated firefighters and the operational readiness of departments nationwide. However, amidst the chaos lies an opportunity for transformation and renewal. By acknowledging the root causes of stress, embracing the needs of diverse generational cohorts, and fostering a culture of connection and support, fire departments can navigate these stormy waters and emerge stronger, united by a shared commitment to service and camaraderie.

Dr. Freeman discusses this topic on the Code 3 Podcast. Listen here:

Dr. Reginald Freeman serves as chief risk officer for the HAI Group, based in Cheshire, Connecticut. Chief Freeman previously served as fire chief for the city of Oakland (California) Fire Department, fire chief for the Hartford (Connecticut) Fire Department and fire chief for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. He is a member of the board of directors for the NFPA and director of training for the Caribbean Association of Fire Chiefs. In addition to serving as an adjust professor for multiple higher learning institutions, Chief Freeman is a fellow for the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and has a doctorate in emergency and protective services.