Features, Leadership, Officer Development

Passing the Torch: A Career Progression Through the Fire Service

Honor guard member holding a fire helmet
Photo by Tim Olk

By Tom Warren

There comes a time in everyone’s firefighting career when you realize the time has come to pass the torch to the next generation. In the fire service this can be a bittersweet experience, whether it is moving to another fire company or when “passing of the torch” means retirement.

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Fire chiefs, fire officers, and firefighters feel very strong emotional ties to the fire service much like those we feel for our immediate families. We view our careers in a multiple dimensional way, divided among our work, the camaraderie of our fellow firefighters, and even the firehouse itself. We have sacrificed our time, energy, passion, and, in too many cases, our health to the fire service. We have trained, studied, drilled, and grew over the years as the fire service itself has evolved into the all-hazards and EMS service it is today.

As firefighters, we begin our careers as the “new kid” and quickly fall into the rhythm of life in the fire service, albeit with a little bit of anxiety. We work unusual work schedules, causing us to be away from home on many holidays and family events; we often find we really don’t mind. These small sacrifices are the foundation of our firehouse family. It does not take long before a more seasoned firefighter sees an earlier version of himself in you and begins to watch out for you. The “passing of the torch” has begun. You begin to apply the skills learned in the training academy in real-life situations at emergency scenes. You are taught the subtle nuances of your craft by those who were once the new kids themselves. You learn how to prepare meals, keep the firehouse clean, and maintain the apparatus and tools as you begin to find a sense of belonging in the firehouse. As each shift passes, the early anxiety fades away and a new confidence begins to emerge. Time always passes quickly, but for some unknown reason in the fire service, time seems to pass at an accelerated rate. It is inevitable that your firehouse family will begin to change as fire officers retire and firefighters are promoted. Suddenly you find yourself the seasoned firefighter mentoring another “new kid” in the firehouse. The torch was passed. All of those early lessons you were taught are passed on once again. You know the nervous new kid will be alright because you will be there as a coach and as someone who will smooth out those rough edges.

As we learned early in our career, time will pass very quickly in the fire service and you will find yourself preparing for your first promotional exam. Studying for a promotional exam can be a lonely pursuit, committing endless volumes of information on ever expanding subjects to memory. As exhausting as this process is, it is also important for fire officers to be prepared. Every future decision made as a fire officer will impact your crew directly and their families indirectly; getting it right is critical. Older and more experienced fire officers that you know can help with advice, study materials, and support. Keeping you motivated and focused is their goal and their reward will be your success. The torch passes once again.

With hard work and dedication, you will have success with your promotional and be promoted. As you assume your new role in the fire service as a fire officer, you will feel those same anxious feelings that captured you as the new kid in those early years. You know these fears will not last, just like they did not last as the new kid. Your skills, experiences, and preparation will emerge, providing the confidence required for a successful fire officer. Success for a new fire officer goes well beyond the skills and experience. It is equally important to create strong relationships within the fire company. The goal is to build that same, strong camaraderie that you felt in your earlier assignment. An effective fire company is equal parts skills and friendships. Your new assignment may be made up of all new members, or you may be the only new member. In either case, building these important relationships are critical. The torch has been passed to you and it is time to get to work.

For fire officers, the first promotion is usually to the rank of lieutenant. The next promotion is to the rank of captain. Most captains find that the most difficult transition was from firefighter to lieutenant. As a new lieutenant, you suddenly find yourself responsible for others than yourself for the first time. Essentially your responsibility is to a single fire company. As a fire captain, you have years of experience looking out for others and are expanding that responsibility to more than a single fire company. The realization of this responsibility can be tempered by older and more experienced captains and chief officers ready to see you succeed. The torch is passed.

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Promotion to battalion chief is a significant transition in the fire service. It is the beginning of the end of the firehouse family as you know it. The responsibilities and duties of chief officers naturally distances them from the closeness firefighters feel in their firehouses. This distance is not born out of being the supervisor, a symbol of management, or a disciplinarian, but out of respect for the chief. Chief officers are responsible for many fire companies and make decisions at emergency scenes that may, at times, be uncomfortable for some firefighters. Chief officers must present themselves as role models, preparing their fire officers for their next promotion. They are passing the torch.

Chief officers are the senior members of the fire department and they know the lesson learned early on that time passes quickly. This is especially true of chief officers assigned to headquarters because they are usually the ones closest to retirement. They are no longer in the firehouses and their duties center around administering the fire department. Their thoughts begin to evolve into preparing the department for the future, a future that they may not experience. Thoughts of legacy, preparing the department for expanded services, or succession planning begin to surge. Everyone wants to leave their career better than when they found it and chief officers are no different. Preparing the fire department and its people for the future becomes the most important task at hand. For the last time, the torch is passed.

Tom Warren

Thomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.

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