Jumping Ship

Last month, we spent some time talking about leaving the fire service. This month, I want to focus on leaving–but not leaving the fire service. In the 1970s, veterans returning from Vietnam were so appreciative to have a job, particularly one with benefits and a retirement, that the salary meant little to them.

When I went to work as a firefighter, I was sitting in rookie school and the lieutenant in charge of the academy came in after he received our first paychecks and wrote a number on the board: $98.21. I can remember it like it was yesterday; it was the amount of his first two-week paycheck when he had come to work for the county. Looking down at the $423.98 paycheck in front of me, I was a bit more appreciative of the number than I might otherwise have been. Sometimes, it’s all about perspective.

Today’s generation of firefighters is dramatically different, perhaps because their parents have worked so hard to make their lives easier. I have known, and counseled, many young men and women seeking to join the ranks of a career department. The recipe for success is simple: Apply everywhere, and keep on applying everywhere until you get hired. If you are offered a job, TAKE IT, even if it is not in the exact department you are seeking. First, you may find it is a much better department than you had originally thought. Second, the dream of tillering Ladder 49 may never come to pass. And third, you will never get rich doing this job.

I have a friend who holds a bachelor’s degree in recruit school: first, Prince Georges, then Fairfax, then D.C., and finally FDNY. The guy should write a book on how to successfully get hired into a department. Even if he had never left his first department, he would have had a tremendously successful career because that is just how the guy is wired. I know another individual who literally spent 20 years applying to departments before he finally got the call.

It has been said that young men and women today will hold more than a dozen jobs in their lifetime and experience as many as five major career changes. That is great for employers and exciting to contemplate in theory but concerning in reality. A public sector job (like firefighting) with a defined benefit pension is an endangered species. Even if the benefit is not as good as your next-door neighbor’s or the fellow firefighter’s up the street, it is still a benefit. Before jumping ship to go somewhere else, ask yourself this question: Why am I leaving?

There are basically three kinds of fire departments in America, and their description is similar to that of fire dynamics: growing, fully developed, and decaying. Depending on your perception of your department, your decision to stay or leave may be significantly impacted by that assessment. Fire departments in the United States that are growing are indeed exceptions to the rule, and if you are lucky enough to be a part of one, DO NOT LEAVE. The department is likely experiencing a tremendous level of change and it is certainly not perfect, but remember that no organization is. Fundamentally, however, you are getting in on the ground floor.

When Microsoft first went into business, there was no way to predict that it would eventually become the largest software engineering company in the history of the world. It was most certainly not perfect. When Southwest Airlines began flying, the odds makers predicted it would not last a year, and it almost never even got off the ground. The point is that fire departments that are adding new positions, building new fire stations, and expanding services are incredibly rare (so rare that you can probably count them on one hand).

Often, from the inside of an organization, all that can be seen are the warts. Jumping ship may ultimately be the best choice for safeguarding your family and protecting your long-term well-being and personal safety, but brotherhood is not found in a name; it lives in the hearts of the men and women who serve beside you. If you have a good crew, and you basically like showing up every day to serve beside them, hang in there.

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