Giving back to the fire service: What will be your legacy?

Share your passion through firefighter training, leadership or mentorship

By Randall Hanifen, faculty member, Emergency & Disaster Management at American Military University

At a recent leadership seminar, the speaker said that we are all just passing through the fire service and it is our job to make the profession better while we are still in it.

In a meaningful conversation at the fire station this week, a colleague told me that he had reached the point of beginning to plan for his retirement and what he would do after retirement.

Through education, instructors return to their students the knowledge and experience they have absorbed through the years.
Through education, instructors return to their students the knowledge and experience they have absorbed through the years. (Photo/Wyoming Army National Guard)

It struck me that both the seminar and my conversation had similar themes. As we firefighters age and start thinking of retirement, what legacy will we leave behind for our fellow firefighters?

Progression from new firefighters to leaders, teachers and mentors

Fire service professionals spend between 25 and 40 years in the fire service. During the first part of our careers, we’re figuring out our career plans in the service and building a level of competence.

About 10 years later, we’re settled in and absorbing every training and education session we can find. If we truly care about quality fire service, we begin to realize that there are younger members behind us. We now think about giving back to the fire service.

This giving back takes many forms. Some firefighters attain leadership roles in their organizations and become fire chiefs so that they may shape their organizations.

Other firefighters find a passion in teaching. Through education, those instructors return to their students the knowledge and experience they have absorbed through the years.

Still others become involved in associations and organizations that work hard to improve fire services in a particular region, state or nation. The principle is to leave the firefighting profession better than we found it.

Some particularly hard-working individuals take the “all around” approach. They give back through leadership, teaching and association work.

Following the cycle has professional and public benefits

If a good portion of our fire service goes through this “learn and return” cycle, our profession will continue evolving and meeting the changing demands of the public. While some might cry that their fellow fire service members are not giving back, I would challenge those individuals to look at the many fire conferences that have been offered over the years.

I personally have seen the size and number of conference venues grow, not to mention the number of online opportunities that exist. While we have all attended sessions that may not have been first-rate, firefighters can learn something from nearly every conference.

Retirement from firefighting requires considerable planning

As we progress to the end of our careers, it is important to figure out what we will do after we stop coming to the firehouse. Many fire service leaders will not be able to turn off the busy lifestyle they built over the years. Deciding to travel and then sit on the porch watching traffic go by will probably not work for those individuals.

This decision to enjoy a less demanding lifestyle has driven many retired leaders to boredom and discontent, which leads to declining health. While it feels good to avoid waking up in the middle of the night and responding to the twentieth call of the day, a secondary profession keeps the mind active and pleasantly occupied.

These decisions should start about 10 years prior to retirement, because proper training and education for any new profession requires time. If a firefighter wants to start a business, for example, he or she needs sufficient time to establish the business within the community.

Training and education promote the development of critical thinking skills

More senior firefighters must begin to mentor newer firefighters, who will take their place when the time comes for the more experienced firefighters to retire. This mentorship begins with encouraging training and education.

While training and education are not the exclusive path to success in any position, they do provide a method for developing proper critical thinking processes. Critical thinking is very important for firefighters.

In today’s information age, firefighters must know how to find good information and distinguish it from poor-quality or incorrect information. Firefighters also need to distill good information and derive useful decisions from the information they acquire.

The value of giving back through mentoring

Mentoring can take different forms. Mentoring can involve speaking at conferences or reviewing the work of firefighters working toward managerial and executive officer positions.

I have heard people say, “I know more than the person teaching that class.” Hearing someone say that makes me wonder, “Why aren’t you teaching the course, then?”

If we firefighters all stand back and expect someone else to teach these classes, they will never take place or be of such low quality that they will have no value.

Many of us likely have spent time in a particular area of the fire service, such as emergency medical services, rescue or professional development. Whatever your specialty may be, use it to give back to your fellow firefighters.

Fire service articles and podcasts

Even if you are not the greatest public speaker and don’t want to talk at conferences, give back to other firefighting professionals by writing articles or participating in podcasts. Today, a lot of educational content is delivered via articles or podcasts. Neither of these formats involves the dreaded stage fright that comes from speaking in front of a live audience.

Proper planning is the only way to ensure that our profession moves forward and to create a more successful transition to our eventual retirement. It is our responsibility to see where we are in the “learn and return” cycle, to take the correct actions to help other firefighters up the ladder, and to create a worthwhile legacy.

About the author
Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a shift captain for the West Chester Fire Department in Ohio and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security.

He is the associate author of Disaster Planning and Control. Randall serves as the executive chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a taskforce leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the vice-chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees.

He is credentialed as a Fire Officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a Fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute, and the IAFC Board of Directors. To contact the author, send an email to For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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