Are we at a fire service tipping point?
Firefighters feel generally positive about the job, but they report high stress, and many have considered leaving their organization
My life was forever changed when I put on my uniform for the very first time as a firefighter/EMT. The fire service appealed to me because I was an All-American athlete in track and field and loved the similar physicality as well as teamwork aspect of the profession. Honestly, the anticipated adrenaline rushes and uncertainty of what I would experience every day was also appealing.
I recall a sense of trepidation up until I started at the Mississippi State Fire Academy for rookie school. After the first hour, I knew I was home. I was convinced that I had found my profession. An honorable career. And the instructors were legendary: John Craig, D. Burns, Daniel Cross, Patrick Cox, Tim Dennison. Recruit Class 67 was trained by the best, and we walked with a swagger because we knew it.
As soon as I got back from the academy, a senior firefighter asked, “You have a good time at the Academy? You learn a lot?” Full of spunk and positive energy, I gleefully responded, “Absolutely! I learned a whole lot!” He then replied, “Do me a favor, forget all that crap they taught you. It’s going to get you or someone else killed. Just follow and listen to me.” It took me a second to process what he said (as I was still clueless to fire service culture at this point), but I quickly adapted and stated, “Roger that.”
Over time, I understood more of what that senior firefighter meant: There is the way you learn how to do things in the fire service by the textbook and then there is the way you learn how to do things in the fire service by actually doing them. Experience is irreplaceable, but we must focus on the “right” experience. I’ve known 30-year veterans who were doing it wrong for 30 years, but you couldn’t tell them that. Remember, tenure is not equivalent to competency – a fact I witnessed throughout my career.
Personal and industry changes
My 22-year fire service career was unorthodox, blessed and absolutely rewarding. I experienced extreme racism and discrimination early in my career and decided that I was going to be a change-agent fire chief.
I left Mississippi and went to Iraq as a civilian fire officer for four years. I became fire chief for Lockheed Martin and later a fire chief for Hartford, Connecticut, followed by Oakland, California. Although it was rewarding to journey on that path as a change-agent chief, it had its challenges. Always being the outside chief and having to forge and build new relationships with every department wasn’t easy. But, as they say, nothing worth having comes easy.
I have learned a lot throughout my career; however, I am very much surprised as to how much the fire service has changed in 22 years. There are five generations in the workplace today. According to the Pew Research Center, the workforce includes 56 million millennials (35%), 53 million Gen X (33%), 41 million baby boomers (25%), 9 million Gen Z (5%) and 3 million Traditionalists (2%).
With the various generations in the workplace, there are also various priorities and sentiments about fire service life. I was reared in the fire service to know, believe and feel as if there is nothing more important than the mission. In order to accomplish the mission, we must be efficient, function as a team, and have one another’s back. Nothing more and nothing less.
When I was joining the service, fire departments across the country had potential candidates lined up for blocks just to submit their applications in hopes of joining the best career on the planet. It took some years to receive their official phone call with a job offer. And when you finally got on the job, you didn’t leave – you didn’t even contemplate leaving.
Fast forward to the present day: The fire service is experiencing an unprecedented period of disinterest and shunning from potential future firefighters. Why? What changed?
FireRescue1’s What Firefighters Want survey sheds some light on the answers, with nearly 2,200 firefighters sharing their perspectives on job satisfaction and the current state of being a member of the fire service.
This year and last, FireRescue1 asked respondents their likelihood, on a scale of 1-10, of recommending a career in the fire service. The number of respondents who answered “10” was 50% last year – a great achievement, particularly considering the responses from our police and EMS counterparts. However, this year’s “10” report is down to 35%. This could be a fluke, a drop rooted simply in a different group of respondents this year, but it could also signal the seemingly ever-increasing stress levels and staffing challenges facing firefighters across the country. (FireRescue1 will continue to track this number year over year.)
The stresses firefighters face today are starkly different than what I had to deal with when I first joined the fire service. We didn’t have a staffing crisis and certainly didn’t have to work 8-14 days in a row without a day off, like some firefighters do today. Fatigue and anxiety are bad enough, imagine not seeing your family and not being present for your family on top of that. The constant push and pull between your oath of office and your loved ones can be an excruciating exercise when you feel you have no choice.
Our profession is special, though. Even with being overworked and in some cases undercompensated, firefighters show up every day for roll call to serve. This is typically done with a huge grin and significant appreciation for our fire service family with whom we serve.
Despite the high stress and staffing struggles, which you’ll read about in greater detail throughout the digital edition, 95% of the respondents stated that they felt positive about their contributions as a member of the organization. The fire service has always represented service before self. This mindset and way of life has long been so rewarding that no matter the negative stress factors, serving and being of service is still well worth what we may have to manage on various levels.
But how long can the positivity last as stress builds? Are we at a fire service tipping point?
A shocking 46% of survey respondents indicated that they have considered leaving their fire department due to their negative feelings about the job. Now, I know there is difference between thinking about something versus doing something; however, arguably, this is an incredibly high number if you consider how respondents likely would have answered 15 or even 10 years ago.
What’s most interesting to consider here is that, unfortunately, many company and chief officers are likely oblivious that they have some members who feel this way.
Serve to save, lead to influence
Servant leadership and transformational leadership emulation is not common throughout the fire service. We have plenty of people in positions of authority, but that certainly doesn’t automatically qualify them as leaders. We must make time to have meaningful two-way conversations with our personnel while practicing active listening and hearing what is important to them. Active listening, simply put, is synthesizing what the person you are speaking with is saying while making eye contact when possible.
There is no fire department without firefighters. We must do a better job in supporting the ideas and solutions to our problems from those who do the actual work. Besides, we often wouldn’t even know that there was a problem if we didn’t engage our members in conversations. Firehouses make every attempt to resolve issues at the lowest level so that brass at headquarters do not have to get involved. There isn’t any malice there; however, officers often don’t have a pulse on what is going on unless they get out of the office and visit periodically with the members. If this happened more often, job satisfaction could possibly be higher just from members feeling as if they are being heard. If one feels heard, they can feel as if they are a member of the fire department family and not just an employee.
If firefighters serve to save, officers can lead to influence members to be the best that they can possibly be.