Reflections on graduation: Fire service leaders reflect on what they wish they had known

Pondering the question: What advice would you share with your newly graduated selves – tips that new graduates can consider for their own paths ahead?

Graduation season is here – although many of this year’s graduations look a bit different from years past.

Regardless of whether ceremonies are in-person or via Zoom, they are still incredible milestones in a person’s life. Graduating from the recruit school, the fire academy or an education program marks the passage to the next step in your career, and shows your commitment to serving your community and your profession.

If we stop to reflect on these milestones, one thing is clear: We know more today than we did upon graduation. We’ve learned many life lessons along the way – and often wish we could share some advice with our younger selves to help smooth the bumpy road of life.

Robert Rielage says he would tell his newly graduated self of years past: “Learning is a life-long process. There is certainly always something new to learn and explore.”
Robert Rielage says he would tell his newly graduated self of years past: “Learning is a life-long process. There is certainly always something new to learn and explore.”

We asked several FireRescue1 authors, board members and contributors what advice they would share with their newly graduated selves – tips that new graduates can consider for their own paths ahead.

Marc Bashoor, Fire Chief, Highlands County, Florida; FireRescue1/Fire Chief Executive Editor

Advice to newly graduated recruit self: This can be the best job in the world. Master the profession before you take a promotion, then master that, then master the politics that will surround everything a firefighter and a department does.

There are no Republicans, Democrats or Independents in those politics; there are only victims and opportunities – victims who it is your mission to help and opportunities to build relationships that will manifest in ways down the road you can’t even imagine right now. 

Today is the start of the rest of your life. Make it a good day!

Steve Prziborowski, Deputy Chief, Santa Clara County (California) Fire Department

Advice to self upon first fire academy graduation: Enjoy the journey, it will go fast. It has been 28 years and still seems like yesterday.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to do many of the things I set out to do in the beginning of my career, and have enjoyed beyond my wildest dreams a career in public safety that I still enjoy and do not take for granted.

Too many graduate the academy without a plan for the future, and then find themselves halfway through their career trying to then figure out what else to do or finding it too hard to go back to school to continue their education to compete for a promotional opportunity. While plans can and do change, if you have any desire to promote to captain or above, take the time early on to complete a college degree, as it won’t be easier when you’ve got a family and have been away from school too long.

Brian Schaeffer says he would tell his high school grad self: “Our time in the fire service goes by incredibly fast. We should take the opportunity to celebrate the experience while we are in action.”
Brian Schaeffer says he would tell his high school grad self: “Our time in the fire service goes by incredibly fast. We should take the opportunity to celebrate the experience while we are in action.”

Brian Schaeffer, Fire Chief, Spokane (Washington) Fire Department

Advice to self upon high school graduation: Enjoy the journey. Sacrifice for a mission like ours is noble, but we only have 30 years (if we’re blessed with that much time in this career). I avoided making time to enjoy it and was constantly moving to the next challenge. Now, being near the end of my career, I wish I had taken that time. Our time in the fire service goes by incredibly fast. We should take the opportunity to celebrate the experience while we are in action.

Ron Siarnicki, Executive Director, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation

Advice to new graduates: As we enter this graduation season, times are surely different from when I graduated from high school, Prince George’s County Recruit School, Executive Fire Officer and even University of Maryland University College. If there is one thing I would like to share about my graduation experiences, it would be this: Never stop learning and do all you can to seek some level of higher education to expand your horizons. I know now that the one thing that helped me the very most throughout my career and during my life as a whole was exposing myself to critical-thinking experiences through my educational opportunities. Challenge yourself to learn something new every day. It will make a significant difference in your world.

Jason Caughey, Fire Chief, Laramie County Fire District #2 in Cheyenne, Wyoming

Advice to self upon fire science program graduation: When I look back at the beginning of my career, I wish I had known to be present, to understand the impacts of all the firefighters before me that built my opportunity to start the best job in the world and, finally, to build the future through those around you.

To be present means that you take ownership of your success and failures, to continue to study and learn the fire service while balancing your growing experience with what you have learned.  To be present means show up every day like it’s your first day – humble, alert, engaged and willing to serve your organization and community without judgment.

I wish I had a better understanding and respect of the men and women that came before me who built the opportunity for me to have a career. I think I respected the history but didn’t truly understand what they went through to create what I was benefiting from. Be respectful of the past but continue to look towards the future.

I wish I would have started earlier in my career on building those around me. Life would have been much easier those early years had I been more open and focused on the success of those around me instead of my individual accomplishment.

Your career is just beginning, the goal is to have a long healthy career where in the end you can look back and say you made a difference. Don’t lose sight of being present, respecting the past, and building those around you. There will be plenty of chances for either greatness or failure. Focus on being great.

Keith Padgett, Program Director Fire and EMS Academic with Columbia Southern University

Advice following graduation from a degree program: Congratulations, you’ve done it! You’ve spent countless hours working to complete your degree and deserve every door that it will open. However, now the question is what to do with all that knowledge. You should not store your textbooks away but rather keep them at the front of your bookshelf. Apply everything that you have learned, conduct research in the industry, develop new concepts that will improve your trade, strive to make a difference that will keep people safe and save lives! You are the future and have an opportunity to make your mark. So take advantage of this occasion and get out there and make it happen – because you deserve it!

Robert Rielage, Former Ohio Fire Marshal

Advice to newly graduated self of years past: First, learning is a life-long process. There is certainly always something new to learn and explore. Second, I wouldn’t be at this time and place in my life if I had stopped wanting to learn and explore new educational experiences. I know, for example, with the outstanding candidates that I competed against, that I would never had been chosen as the fire marshal for Ohio if I hadn’t gone to the Kennedy School for Senior Executives in State and Local Government. I wouldn’t have been chosen for that honor if I hadn’t listened to three of my outstanding instructors at the National Fire Academy: Don Manno, Chuck Burkell and Dr. Burton Clark, who encouraged me to pursue my master’s degree.

Education is cumulative, and any graduation is a milepost, not a destination. Enjoy this graduation and all the accomplishments it represents for you. Then start planning your future knowing that continuous education, whether formal or informal, is the foundation for your success.

John Butler, Fire Chief, Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department

Advice to new grad from high school firefighter program: While I have over 20 years of involvement in high school firefighter and EMT programs, I am always so excited and encouraged by the level of professionalism, discipline and maturity the members of these programs have always displayed. You are no different! In fact, this year you have raised the bar! Some say the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is going to change us. If the crisis is going to indeed change us like many say it would, then let us make it for the better. Dare to try different things. Stand for something. Have an action plan that is anchored in your passion and values system. Be all about “us” and “we.” Serve someone.

“I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” — Albert Schweitzer.

I have been lucky, experiencing two work experiences that I have genuinely loved: fire/emergency service and military service.

At the end of the day, if you learned something new, made new friends, matured, had fun and were inspired to do more, be more, then we have collectively succeeded! Hopefully, like me, you will find a profession, a school or a volunteer opportunity that you love. What you do is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and work that is for the greater good. If you have not found it yet, keep looking. Do not settle. Have the courage to follow your heart, dream and intuition. Try new things, different things. Open your minds and be courageous to keep asking the tough questions. Stay Hungry. Stay Safe and healthy. Go forth and thrive! Congratulations!

Robert Avsec, Battalion Chief (ret.), Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS

Advice to newly graduated self from recruit school: Talk about your career aspirations with your spouse or significant other, and maybe your children. Time spent on professional development, whether it’s time spent attending a class or working on a class paper in the spare bedroom upstairs, that’s time you can’t give to those important people in your life. And that’s going to be an issue with you being on duty and away during your 24-hour shifts. Be proactive and take the time to not only discuss where you want to go, but how you’re going to get there.

Jon Dorman, Lexipol Content Developer; Assistant chief of operations (ret.), Ketchikan, Alaska

Advice following fire academy graduation: Throughout my 16 weeks in the academy, the instructors all told us how quick our careers would go by. At 22, I thought “No way – a career is a long time, you’ve got plenty of time.” But sure enough, those guys were right. If I could tell my 22-year-old rookie firefighter self something, it would be to really enjoy that time. You never get it back and it really does fly by.

[Read next: After the Pomp and Circumstance: There is so much MORE to learn]

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