By BARRY S. DASKAL
One of the toughest situations a volunteer firefighter may face is the possibility of leaving his department. The most common reasons are relocating to a new geographic area, injuries, and family or work obligations. Having left four fire departments over the past 20 years for all of these reasons, I’d like to share some of my personal experiences in case you find yourself having to leave your department.
MOVING OUT OF DISTRICT
One of the most gut-wrenching circumstances a long-time member can face is being forced to leave his department. The firehouse is where families, past members, and even officers are engrained in that department’s culture and traditions, and where you have proven yourself as an asset. In my region, leaving a district is one of the biggest obstacles for volunteer retention. Many junior members born and reared and still living in their childhood homes simply can’t afford to remain in their town when the time comes to purchase their own home. Even with the downturn in the real estate market, they are still priced out. This leads many to move to other areas and commonly impacts your under-10-year volunteer crowd (generally the most active).
For many, the volunteer fire service is one of the top three priorities in life, right behind family and work. A big life question is, if you are able to, should you join the fire department in your new area? There are some major challenges when changing departments, the least of which is learning new names and faces. There are some practical matters that you need to address.
Hopefully, your new department will welcome you with open arms and let you step right in and serve at full duty. This best-case scenario leads you to want to give your all and assimilate to your new surroundings as quickly as possible. Prior to being sworn in at one department, I asked my future captain which skills he expected me to perform to prove my capability. His answer was, “Nothing. We’ll find out what you know soon enough.” I was sworn in at 8 p.m.; at 4 a.m., I was right next to my new captain, forcing the front door at a taxpayer fire.
However, the flip side is that your previous experience may mean very little or nothing to your new department even if you already have all your training certificates or may previously have served as an officer or chief elsewhere. You may also have to redo your basic training and serve a full probationary period. From a practical standpoint, this is by far your most difficult challenge and often deters many individuals from joining a new department.
Retaking basic firefighting courses is not just a blow to the ego but often is impossible because of time constraints placed on you in this stage of your life. Impairing fireground abilities, such as not allowing you to wear self-contained breathing apparatus for a period of time or relegating you to pack hose, creates resentment. It is difficult to go from being a go-to person on the fireground to working hose outside a building or being a “lawn shepherd” with a pike pole on the front lawn. It can be frustrating and, at times, make you angry.
The best approach is to realize that all of this is temporary. Think of a probationary time as a getting-to-know-you process. With time, as you settle into a new atmosphere and the other members get used to you, things will stabilize. When you are active, people take notice; attitudes may change—most importantly, your own. Be an asset around the firehouse and in any fireground task you are given. My best advice in this situation is to tough it out. As my wife said, the alternative is not joining and then being miserable every time you hear a siren or see a fire truck pass by.
I recently suffered a knee injury that threatened my career. I wondered what I would do if I couldn’t return to work. How would I pay my mortgage? I would receive a reasonable disability retirement, paid healthcare, and social security. I could afford a fairly comfortable life provided I moved out of state and away from all my friends and family. I could come to peace with that. I may not be able to do things integral to being a firefighter again, things we take for granted (like squatting and crawling). What if I couldn’t resume my passion—firefighting?
While I was recuperating, the brothers and sisters called, visited, picked me up, and brought me to the firehouse to spend time with them. They came to the hospital and even came to my home to decorate for the holidays! This was nothing particularly special for firefighters to do. In fact, I had done it for others many times. This was the first time I was on the receiving end. It lifted my spirits tremendously.
I spent countless hours immersing myself in all things fire related, from reading and writing Fire Engineering articles to watching movies and running a fire service Web site. I also practiced a psychological skill we all use from time to time called “mental imagery.” I imagined myself returning to the firehouse and going on calls and being with the brothers and sisters. I knew I had to maintain a positive attitude. If I could not resume my fire service career, I realized that it wouldn’t mean the end of my time with the fire service. After a long period of uncertainty, I returned to work full duty and, more importantly, to the firehouse.
WORK AND FAMILY
My family is the most important thing in my life. Next is my job, which is purely the source of income. Finally, it’s my volunteer fire department. My identity comes from the fire department; this is something only a firefighter could understand. Work and family obligations often overtake your free time, which is generally dedicated to the fire department.
My work and family life were directly affected during 9/11, and the period thereafter took me away from the fire department. Over those next few months, I got married and changed jobs. I then moved up to the office of captain and faithfully served to the best of my ability, making well over my minimum percentage requirements and conducting training sessions. However, when faced with my new work hours and new responsibilities at home, I had to make a choice: be a volunteer fire officer or be a gainfully employed husband. I made the only decision I could and stepped down; it was the most painful choice I ever made in the fire service. But I did what I needed to do and discovered that the sun will still rise in the morning and both the fire department and I will go on.
The best solution to managing work, family, and fire department is involving your family in as many firehouse aspects as you can, particularly in social events. Quite often, most events are meant for both the members and their families. Take full advantage of this. Also, share with your officers any pertinent situations going on in your life that affect your availability, and they will work with you.
Life throws us many curveballs and, let’s face it, we are volunteers; we do this in our free time because it is simply something that gets in our blood. When faced with challenges that may take you away from the fire service, evaluate your priorities and move on from there. If you have the opportunity to stay involved, find a way, even if it’s not as an active member but as a fire service supporter. You may no longer be able to be an active fire service member, but the fire service will always be part of you.
BARRY S. DASKAL is a police officer/aircraft rescue firefighter with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York. He is also a certified EMT-critical care and clinical lab instructor at the Nassau County (NY) EMS Academy and a member of the Wantagh (NY) Fire Department. He previously served as a police officer with the New York City Police Department and as a supervising fire alarm dispatcher with the Fire Department of New York. He is a 20-year volunteer firefighter and has served as a captain and training officer. He is the creator and host of “The Average Joe Firefighter Podcast” on FireEngineering.com.