‘Best job in the world’: New and seasoned members alike still love the job

Survey respondents resoundingly recommend a career in the fire service – a vital stat amid growing recruitment challenges


For generations, the American fire service has prided itself for being “the best job in the world.” We have hung our hat on being one of the most sought-after careers in our communities. The coveted schedule, retirement benefits and excitement of the job, plus the respect and trust that our communities show the fire service, has created an iconic aura around both the volunteer fire service and career fire service.

That being said, the fire service continues to see a significant shortage of volunteers and a drastic reduction in applications for an increasing number of vacant career fire positions.

The looming question: Is firefighting still the best job in the world?

For many first-year members, the job is amazing.
For many first-year members, the job is amazing. (Photo/Jason Caughey)

The love of the job

Let me start off by saying that after 20-plus years in the fire service, I still get excited to go to work. When I reflect on my years spent as a volunteer, a smile comes to my face. The impact of volunteering provided me a sense of accomplishment and the value of serving our community, plus it gave me diversity from my paid non-fire service job. I even still remember the first night of volunteer training. I couldn’t sleep because of how excited I was by the profession itself, the inherent teamwork and the sense of pride. After 15 years in the volunteer fire service, I transitioned to working full-time as a firefighter.

Looking back, I still believe this is the best job in the world. But is that true for the new firefighters entering the service as either a volunteer or career?

Highly likely to recommend

FireRescue1’s recent survey, “What Firefighters Want: Fireground Leadership,” produced eye-opening data from nearly 2,500 respondents about their level of career satisfaction and, for the purposes of this discussion, their likelihood to recommend a career in the fire service.

The good news: The survey identified that most firefighters would recommend a career in the fire service. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most likely to recommend this career, the far-and-away dominant score was 10.

The fire service, despite its many challenges, clearly continues to be a highly rewarding profession, with many members believing that they have won the “Golden Ticket” by entering the fire service.

Many respondents – too many to count, in fact – stated some version of “this is the best job in the world.” Here’s a snapshot of similarly positive remarks:

  • “Great job that pays off if you work hard, service to community, very possible to start on the bottom and work up to chief.”
  • “It is an amazing job for someone who is active and wants a job that keeps them active. There is never a time when you can stop learning.”
  • “It’s the best job in the world; however, it requires dedication and sacrifice – it is not for everybody, and many cannot meet the high standards.”
  • “This has been the greatest career as I start to wind down. The things we get to do in the fire service are simply amazing. I tell people what’s fun about being a firefighter? Being a firefighter!”

I’ll add my own quote to the positive voices: “I feel like I have not worked a single day since landing a career in the fire service.”

Unmet expectations

The answers to this simple question provide invaluable insight into the social temperature of the American fire service, including the fact that some respondents, particularly those with two to five years of service, had a different perception about this work.

Some quotes that highlight the frustrations with the job:

  • “It is not the same job. The expectation of the job is way more now than it ever has been.”
  • “With education, there are other higher-paying jobs with reduced exposures to mental and physical threat. In addition, other jobs can provide better longevity than the fire service.”
  • “When I entered the fire service, I had a vision of what it would be, and it is not that all.”

These comments prompt several questions related to the challenges the fire service is facing with recruitment and retention in both volunteer and career fire departments: Has the job changed? Has our perception of the job been blurred? Are we misrepresenting the fire service to incoming members? Has the media – and social media – presented an inaccurate image of the realities of the job?

Marketing messages: I question if we are being honest in marketing what we do as a fire service. Specifically, as many of us struggle with recruitment, we tend to use the “sexy” images of big fires to attract new members. It’s true that these fires are exhilarating parts of the job, but the reality is that those events can be once in a lifetime in some areas of the country. Has this style of marketing established an unrealistic image of what we really do?

In addition to maybe a blurred image of the fire service, do members who two to five years on the job expect a faster growth in their role, thus causing them to think less of their position? Younger generations tend to favor immediate gratification impacting everything we do, from news alerts and updates on our phones to constant streaming of new ideas. Growth in the fire service is not a “now” environment. Our current promotion systems are centered around a process that can take years to complete. Could this be another impact on job satisfaction for these relatively new members?

Health and safety: With the growing focus on the risks associated with firefighting, members with two to five years of service might be second-guessing their career choice. The risks are real, and if we as a fire service fail to protect our members from those risks, we will see even more reluctance from members to recommend volunteering or pursuing a career in the fire service.

The responsibility of marketing how we are protecting our members from those risks falls on leadership. As leaders, we must promote how we are protecting our members – new procedures, improved resources, presumptive cancer laws, etc. Bottom line: If we don’t address the risk-related concerns of potential new members, we could be limiting our volunteer and career hiring pool.

Early excitement and feelings of accomplishment

The What Firefighters Want survey also provided qualitative data that highlighted how amazing it is to be either a volunteer or career firefighter.

When we look at the data associated with the above comments, we find that individuals in their first year or at the end of their career provided the most rewarding comments. If we take the time to unpack why first-year members and seasoned members agree that the fire service is the best job ever, we might be able to capture key points that will help us in recruiting new members.

Here’s my take: First-year members are excited, energized and engaged. They are experiencing sensory overload through training on cool new equipment, the adrenalin rush of training and running calls, and the family/team atmosphere. For many first-year members, the job is amazing.

The data also supports that firefighters with five or more years have a very positive perception of the fire service. I believe this improved perception comes from several factors likely centered around the feeling of accomplishment. As you grow in experience and knowledge of your position, so does your confidence. A confident individual will have a greater appreciation of what they do and how they serve in their role. The senior firefighter has experienced the worst and lived to talk about it, becoming a badge of honor – a sense of pride and accomplishment. Their stories become the foundation for the industry to share as we recruit new members. We share their success and passion for the fire service.

The question at hand

So, is the fire service the best job in the world?

YES!

Regardless of whether you are a volunteer or career firefighter, our profession provides the opportunity to be challenged daily, grow daily, and make an impact on those around you daily. The job changes over the course of your career, which provides the ability to grow and expand as an individual. Organizationally, we have work to do to continue to make firefighting the best job in the world. We need to continue to focus on serving our members so they can serve our communities for years to come – and continue to recommend the best job in the world to others.

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