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‘Unacceptable and unsustainable': FFs sound off on industry’s problem areas

From “doing more with less” staff to poor leadership, members share the top industry issues that sour their career ambitions

Damaged firefighter helmet on a floor with fire flames on background. Вangerous and hard work of a firefighter concept.

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By FireRescue1 Staff

While many firefighters happily declare their love of the job as they hurriedly head to a working fire, some parts of the job are clearly less appealing than others — so much so that the fire service is now facing a retention crisis.

In this year’s What Firefighters Want report, survey respondents identified the aspects of the industry they find least satisfying — and potentially looking for other employment. We’ve compiled reader comments related to the top three least satisfying areas of the job – poor leadership, staffing shortages and personal health risks – and added resources to help address these issues.

How is your department tackling these problem areas? Send an email to and share your organization’s success story.

Poor agency leadership
Survey respondents overwhelmingly selected “poor agency leadership” as the least satisfying aspect of the fire service. In the free text response area, participants highlighted the fact that even if crews find other areas of a department to be problematic, many of those issues can also be traced back to the quality of those in leadership.
  • “A team needs good leadership to perform.”
  • “Complete disconnect from admin to the rigs. There’s no accountability for actions and inconsistent leadership with police and discipline.”
  • “Our leadership is failing at every level. Company officers aren’t consistent with upholding standards or training. Agency leadership are actively violating labor policies and standards. Lots of platitudes but little in substance.”
  • “Poor leadership leads to all other problems mentioned in the fire service”
  • “A great leader will move a department forward in the future. Mediocre leadership will eventually bring down morale, and they will not have the support of their fellow firefighters or the public. Poor leadership now will create poor leadership in the future.”
  • “Finding a good leader is extremely hard. Everyone wants the title, but are not always capable of filling the shoes of a leader. There is a lack of guidance, which causes a lack in training, which endangers everyone.”
  • “Leadership is not on the same page with their department.”
  • “A poor leader will make or break a workplace.”
  • “Leadership in place that is not qualified to lead makes most aspects of the job harder.”
  • “Administration is disconnected [from] the ever-increasing demands of the community and standing up for their firefighters.”
Check out the below leadership resources and share them with your colleagues.

“Take care of your troops and they will take care of you” and other military command lessons applied to the fire service
It may feel counterintuitive at times, but achieving trust starts by showing unilateral respect to everyone, even when you disagree
Focus on teamwork, coping mechanisms and even how not to behave with other members
Reflections on leadership from an IAFC Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year
Staffing challenges
Over the last decade, fire departments have seen their pool of applicants for open positions dwindle, from a stack of applications to hire one firefighter, to multiple open slots and not enough interest to fill them. Particularly as the older firefighters hang up their turnouts for good, departments need to find ways to bring in new recruits, which is easier said than done and a big reason why survey respondents selected “staffing challenges” as one of the least satisfying aspects of the job.
  • “Sometimes we do not have enough firefighters and have to triple-down on duties.”
  • “Anything can be done with the correct amount of people for the job. But poor agency leadership expects a short-staffed FD to perform way too much work.”
  • “The current staffing model is no longer valid.”
  • “The staffing challenge, especially at my current employer, has been going on for my entire time here and has caused a a lot of mandatory OT.”
  • “Constant struggle to get enough responders for calls.”
  • “Staffing challenges are often caused by poor leadership, meaning more work for already overworked crews. Once those people hit the tipping point, they leave, too, further compounding the problem.”
  • “Trying to find people to join the ranks is tough and keeping good people is even tougher.”
  • “Difficult to properly provide the community with an adequate response they expect and deserve without appropriate manpower.”
  • “We have been understaffed since 1983. From 3,000 to 14,000 calls per year and didn’t add staff. This is unacceptable and unsustainable.”
  • “We are doing more with less people. The current shift in people and community dynamics is leading to diminished numbers of personnel entering the fire service.”
Check out the below resources for recruitment and retention.
Firefighters get real about one of the biggest issues facing the industry and how to fix it
It’s time to reevaluate our SOPs, eliminate insular groups, and see traditions as an honor, not an anchor
Effective recruitment will look different for each agency, but the basics are the same and critical to get right
Personal health risks
It doesn’t take long after joining the fire service to see the dangers up close — from occupational cancer to fireground injuries and maydays, as well as the mental health battle to handle it all — to understand why survey respondents selected “personal health risks” to round out the top three least satisfying aspects of the job.
  • “Knowing that my health can be impacted by the long-term effects is worrisome. Knowing that I’m exposed to carcinogens that could impact my physical health and being exposed to traumatic events that could impact my mental health worries me that over time it could lead to issues down the road.”
  • “This job is ‘risk vs. reward,’ and the reward of being able to serve in the fire service comes the risk of higher job-related health issues (higher cancer and cardiovascular death rates).”
  • “Health is the most important thing in life. We want to be there for our families.”
  • “Still too many of us are succumbing to cancer, heart problems and, increasingly, suicide. The job is a noble one, but in this day and age, why is this still happening?”
  • “It’s a risky job, but you won’t know if you are sick until years later.”
  • “As a firefighter, we all know the dangers involved in our jobs. Up until the last several years, we were never made aware of all the potential health risks, such as occupational cancer, PFAS and other chemical exposure within our uniforms and gear.”
  • “After 35 years of being involved as a firefighter of virtually all ranks, I wonder when they’ll find the cancer, not if. Bullets stop chasing police officers when they retire, but our cancer journey could begin at any time, regardless of service status.”
  • “The risks are undeniable. Cancer and heart disease are no jokes, but a reality of the job.”
  • “The risk of cancer, heart attack, stroke or behavioral health challenges is a real problem and getting worse.”
Check below for resources related to firefighter cancer awareness and other health-related content.

FRCE’s Fire Service Occupational Cancer Alliance spotlighted four efforts to minimize occupational cancer risks
The president of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network – who just worked the Super Bowl – considers similarities between preparing for big events and preventing the Big C
A physician’s assistant at FDIC urged me to seek out a specialist – and now I urge you to pay attention to your body and take action when needed
While the fire service has made huge strides in recognizing the importance of member wellness, every fire department across the country has room to improve
The Irving Police Department and Irving Fire Department combined forces to offer EMDR therapy, an employee health clinic, wellness incentives and much more