Why did we stop hiring and promoting the ‘workers’ among us?

Valuing firefighters with a “worker” mentality – not simply degrees and test scores – is key to the long-term success of the fire service


The fire service continues to evolve from the origins of Ben Franklin’s bucket brigades to the robust all-hazards business we have become. Have we gotten to the point where we rely too much on titles and credentials and not enough on experience? Tell us what you think at editor@firerescue.com.

By Chad Costa

There are many challenges that present themselves to chief officers. I embrace those challenges. That’s what drives me to show up to work or answer the phone on my day off. But the fire service has created challenges that are difficult to overcome and require strategic changes to our hiring and promotional process. One major challenge is hiring and promoting the right people for your organization. I’ve found myself asking, “Why did we stop hiring and promoting the workers?”

What do I mean by “the workers”? These are the firefighters who possess a background in labor and hard work or a specific trade-type skill. These workers used to come out toward the top of our entry-level exams, and I’ve met many seasoned firefighters who told me they were hired because of this type of experience. These same attributes carried through to our promotional exams. We used to promote our hardest workers, the ones who gave back to the organization and lived and breathed our department. What happened and what were the unintended circumstances to the change?

Many firefighters possess a background in labor and hard work or a specific trade-type skill. (Photo/Chad Costa)
Many firefighters possess a background in labor and hard work or a specific trade-type skill. (Photo/Chad Costa)

Changing face of the industry

Although there are many theories of this change and I’ve heard lots of good arguments at the kitchen table, I believe the true reason for this change is quite simply that the fire service has changed. The missions and values have relatively stayed the same, but our vision, our purpose and the overall service that we provide has completely changed. We all remember the days when the firefighters would show up to work, place their gear on the rigs and check their apparatus. Once that was completed, the doors of the station were closed until the next shift arrived or there were emergency calls.

Those days are behind us, and we have transitioned into a more transparent all-risk service. We have embraced the ALS world and placed paramedics on our fire apparatus. We have people assigned and hired for social media and outreach programs. We are out in the public every day teaching fire safety and emergency preparedness, and ensuring our communities are prepared for any type of disaster. We have truly become the “go-to” service for information, and that’s expected from our constituents.

But with all this amazing change, I believe we’ve lost an important trait of our employees. Much of this job is blue-collar. The foundation of our success is our hands and labor. With our focus becoming fire-based EMS and education-based credentials, the “worker” has been left behind.

How to value education vs. trade skills

I’ve seen the educated, well-spoken entry-level firefighter or promotional employee come out at the top of the list, while the member who has devoted their life and efforts to the organization falls to the bottom. Now in this situation, there is always some responsibility of that person to score higher on the test and to ensure they are competitively accredited. But my challenge, and the ultimate reason in writing this editorial, is to adjust our organizations to recognize these hard-working and dedicated traits and make sure that they mean something in our decision-making process and selections.

In the entry-level process, we need to give value to people with those “worker” traits. Our newest members will thrive when they have that hard-working foundation. If they don’t start off with that foundation, the organization will have to dedicate and refocus its academy and probationary period to instill these traits and values down the road. Instilling these traits is hard to do in an adult, which is why I see value in looking for those traits early in our process.

When we critically evaluate our promotional process, we again need to value the members who have been our foundation. Our workers should be rewarded for that work, and it needs to be part of their overall placement on the list. By not valuing the workers, we send a dangerous message to the rest of our members: “Do good on the test and that’s all that matters.” That will cripple our organization and leave us stagnate.

Valuing the workers, in addition to showing value in education and credentials, will help us turn the corner and get back on track. Setting a high bar at the lowest level will bleed success throughout the organization. Additionally, focusing on mentorship and career development are where we will really start seeing our organization succeed. I submit that making the “worker” trait as your highest priority at the entry-level, and then mentoring and creating a solid succession plan that is funded and supported, is the long-term solution to this challenge.

Final thoughts on valuing the worker

Organizations need members who will do whatever is needed. Members who first ask, “What can I do for the organization?” not “What can the organization do for me?” Ultimately the core values and traits of that mindset and culture come from the blue-collar mentality and from the people who have that core foundation of a “worker.” Those core values will carry the organization through any challenge or success, and need to be valued throughout our hiring process and our culturally driven succession plan, including promotional processes. Failure to recognize these needs will bolster the “me” generation and ultimately leave organizations stagnate and unable to navigate our ever-changing service.

About the Author

Chad Costa is a battalion chief with the City of Petaluma (California) Fire Department. With 20 years of fire service experience, Costa has worked in a variety of organizations, including the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), rural districts, semi-rural districts and a city. He is the technology and communications battalion chief and a division group supervisor on California Interagency Team 5. Costa has a bachelor’s degree in emergency services management and a certificate in homeland security.

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