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The many faces of fire service success: Our goals are different – and that’s OK

Firefighters should set their own goals for success, then department leaders can help them find the best path forward


It is essential to our membership that we value the right things and help cultivate a variety of goals and visions.


What makes a successful fire service career? Is it becoming a career firefighter? Obtaining your paramedic certification or a college degree? What about promoting to company officer or becoming a union official? The most straightforward answer is, it depends.

These achievements may be the hallmark of a successful career in the fire service, but very few of us (if any) know how to put our finger on what success looks like early in our careers. Further, there are numerous people and events that influence our perception of success. Some of these influences are good, and others detrimental to our growth.

It therefore becomes vital for those of us who feel comfortable in our own pursuit of success to help others identify theirs, without telling them what it should be. Coworkers, supervisors and department leaders all have a part to play in fostering such success.

The false narrative

First, let’s take a look at the influences that may be detrimental to our efforts geared toward identifying and achieving what we believe to be success.

Have you ever been told that you can’t be successful unless you [fill in the blank with miscellaneous advice]? Usually that blank is filled with achievements like promoting or getting hired by a certain fire department. You may hear the classic line, “You’ve gotta work toward being a chief” or the more recently shared advice, “The fire service is changing, and you won’t be successful unless you get your college degree.” While none of these ideas is bad, the idea that they are the only ways to be successful or that you have to aspire to someone else’s idea of success is where we find ourselves with a problem.

Far too often, we find our young (whether young in age or career) members striving toward goals that they didn’t set themselves, but rather were told they should be chasing. We then wonder why they’re constantly unhappy, unmotivated, unable to fit in on the job or the subject of disciplinary action.

How many of those members prepare and test for promotions, only to be devastated when they don’t get it – but really didn’t want in the first place? How many dump time and money into a college degree that they don’t need or really want? The key: Each member should set their own goals for success. Once that’s done, then we as coworkers, officers and department leaders can help them find the best path forward.

Where we can help

There are several ways that we can assist our coworkers and department members. Some approaches are more active, others more passive.

It’s important to first understand that the notion of success is often tied to department culture, and sometimes even varies from firehouse to firehouse within the same department. It is essential to our membership that we value the right things and help cultivate a variety of goals and visions.

Imagine the idea of success within a department is believed only to be attained through promotion. As we know, not everyone is cut out to be an officer, nor are there enough slots to accommodate everyone who seeks promotion. So, if that’s the idea of success, we’re bound to have several “unsuccessful” people, right? See the issue there? As a department, we need to be sure that we’re valuing realistic goals that will empower members and create satisfaction within the ranks, not goals that create an unnecessary perception of failure.

So, what does that look like? We should aspire for our members to be the best at whatever it is they’re doing or focused on, making it OK to want to be the best driver/operator on the department or the best technical rescue expert they can be. Once the idea of value has shifted to celebrating a variety of achievements, our members will feel freer to explore their own ideas of success, and ones that they are more likely to obtain. This will create empowered, engaged and happier members, while also making the department more effective for the community. What more could we want?

As individual coworkers and supervisors, we, too, can play a role in others’ pursuit of success. By helping them train as a driver, helping them set up rope systems, or study for their promotional or college exam, we can inch them toward their idea of success and continue to strengthen the department’s view on success. All of this is done with the understanding that once success has been reached, it doesn’t mean the journey is over; instead, it might change to something new.

The best career advice

Your idea(s) of success may, and likely will, change as you reach certain milestones. Let them. This isn’t a bad thing, and you should foster the desire to continually better yourself. Our view of success and our career goals will grow and mature as we do as individuals.

As firefighters, we’ve learned to be flexible in our day-to-day activities, so we should afford ourselves the same flexibility during our career growth and development. While you may have visioned yourself as only wanting to promote to the rank of driver/operator, once you’re there, you may recognize you have more in the tank and aspire to be a company officer. If that happens, take a moment to recognize that you’re currently successful and celebrate it, and at the same time, recalibrate and figure out your path toward company officer.

A word of caution: Be mindful of who you take your advice or cues from. Like your mom and dad always told you, “Be careful who you spend your time with”; that advice still rings true. If you’re on a negative crew or intentionally surround yourself with negative people, you’ll likely hear that your goals aren’t worth pursing or that you won’t get there regardless of how hard you work. Those negative members aren’t bad people; rather, they likely do not feel empowered or valued themselves, which impacts their feeling of success and achievement. Forge your own path and, in return, be a positive influence on them instead of their negativity rubbing off on you.

I’ll leave you with this. No matter what your idea of success is or where you want your career to take you, pursue it with a whole heart and an open mind.

Ian Emmons is the deputy chief of operations for Washington Township in Dayton, Ohio, and a content developer for Lexipol. Emmons received his MBA from the University of Cincinnati and is a current EFOP student at the National Fire Academy. He sits on the Board of Directors for the Safety, Health and Survivial section of the IAFC, is an IAFC Professional Development Committee member, serves as the Education Committee Chair for IFE-USA, and sits on multiple NFPA technical committees, including 1001 and 1021. Emmons has been designated as a CFO and CTO through the CPC and received his MIFireE status from the IFE.