Learning, Earning, and Returning

By Thomas N. Warren

When the time comes to retire, most people begin to reflect on their careers. They begin to wonder what they could have done differently, what they could have done better and, of course, on the memories of their successes as well as their failures. There are years of true friendships and professional relationships that have inspired, nurtured, and helped develop their professional being. Perhaps the deepest and most vexing questions you may have are, Did my career make a difference to anyone? And, Have I left a positive mark on the organization?

Reflecting in this manner is not exclusive to either the public or private sector. However, given the nature of the working environment of the fire service, you feel this emotion much more deeply than workers in the private sector. The working lives of firefighters places you in a professional work setting that is, at the same time, made up of extended family members who also are your coworkers. You work, rest, eat, train, and thrive in a communal setting centered on a paramilitary organizational structure. This workplace paradigm is a unique working environment that builds strong and lasting bonds and emotions. You take everything that is connected to your work and your organization much more personally than your friends in the private sector. When something tragic happens to one of us, you feel the pain, just as you all feel the joy for the success of your colleagues.

When you sort out all of the emotions you begin to feel at around the time of your retirement, you see that your career follows a similar path; a path that takes many years to traverse. You who take your work seriously and become personally invested in your organization and members will come to see that there are three interconnected phases of your career based on the philosophy of learning, earning, and returning.

This concept of learning, earning and returning was written about in Harlan Anderson’s autobiography titled Learn, Earn and Return, My Life as a Computer Pioneer. Anderson was the cofounder of Digital Equipment Corporation and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate and wrote about his professional life in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Firefighters, in general, follow this path through their careers, but never quite look at themselves through this prism. Firefighters quietly learn their craft, earn to support their families and future retirement and, in the end, return to the fire service through mentoring and improving the fire service for those who will follow. Firefighters will never reach the philanthropic levels of a Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, or a Michael Bloomberg, but in their own way, the knowledge and skill that they pass on to the next generation of firefighters fulfills the last third of this three-part philosophy.



This is the most exciting time of your career; the beginning of a career that is exciting, physically orientated, and full of pride and tradition. There is a sense of nervous anticipation as you take your place in this noble profession. You were taught the basic skills in the training academy, but you will soon learn that you are untested, and the moment of truth is at hand. If you are fortunate, and almost every new recruit is, you will find someone (or he will find you) who will mentor you and watch out for you as you stumble along during these early years. There is still so much to learn, on the fireground and on the administration side of your organization. You quickly realize that pumping an engine truck in the drill yard is nothing like operating the pump at a chaotic scene of a fire. The rapid sequence of events can be intimidating: Where is the water supply? Which company took the preconnect 1¾-inch hose off the rear hose bed? Where did they take it? At what pressure should I set the pump? Did I forget to set the brakes? The list goes on and on.

It is no different for the ladder company. Positioning the truck, raising the aerial, getting to the roof, and not forgetting the chain saw and how big the hole you need to make should be…your first few fires can be overwhelming. But, you are learning your craft under fire, like no other profession in the world. Your colleagues are depending on you and, as time goes by, you take that responsibility very seriously and personally.

Although you are learning the firefighting skills you need to survive, the bureaucratic skills cannot be ignored either. Something as simple as requesting vacation time will require completing a form in triplicate and sending it through the chain of command. Often, this process does not make any sense, but it is necessary to any organization. It takes someone with the bureaucratic experience to guide you along this path.

The learning process is not confined to the fireground and administrative sides any more; the EMS work has begun to fill a larger part of our professional lives. Honing the EMS skills that you were taught at the fire academy will come quickly. You will see and experience things that you thought you would never see and, in some cases, things that you once would have walked away from. You will soon be performing skills that once were reserved for doctors in an emergency room.

It will not be long before you expand your skillset to other areas like heavy rescue, hazmat operations, confined space rescue, marine firefighting, severe weather operations, and other specialized hazardous emergency responses. You will be encouraged to continue your professional development through local college and university programs. This is the learning that will provide the foundation for professional advancement throughout tour career.

You will study building construction, firegound tactics/strategy, fire prevention/ investigation, leadership, hydraulics, labor relations, and a whole host of other learning disciplines that make up a full degree program. Rounding out the learning process is the preparation that is required for successfully competing in the promotional exam process. By this time in your career, you will have become a seasoned member of your fire company and will have become eligible for promotion. Learning has expanded your skills, set you apart and, most importantly, prepared you to assume greater responsibility. As you study and prepare for the promotional exam, you will continue to learn and increase your knowledge base; it never really ends. This knowledge will become part of your professional being and serve you and your organization well into the future. Your learning has been a growing and evolving process since the first day you placed your gear on the truck.



As you have developed into fire service professionals, you have been rewarded with promotions that you earned through hard work and commitment to you and your organization. Greater responsibility comes with every promotion, and during this phase of your careers, you will earn several promotions which will be compensated with higher earnings commensurate with the new responsibilities you have earned.

There will also be other rewards that come from your earnings such as buying a small vacation home, sending your children to college, spending more time doing the things you enjoy, or simply building a nest egg for a comfortable retirement. These are the years of the greatest earning potential. You will have the time to develop a second career that can add additional security to your financial growth. Prudent firefighters make the best of this time for financial security because they have all witnessed how quickly a fire service career can end through unforeseen injuries.

The family and communal atmosphere that is present in the fire service will serve to strengthen your financial position through helping one another. When the time comes for home repair or improvements, firefighters are quick to help each other out. You have in your midst skilled carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters, roofers, and all kinds of tradespeople. Firefighters are always ready to help one another out with all these kinds of home repair and improvement projects. Doing it yourself is always less costly that hiring a contractor to do any job. I have witnessed a small army of firefighters descend on an injured firefighter’s house and spend a weekend making repairs, painting, landscaping, and any other jobs that need to be done. They did it simply because one of their own needed the work done and was unable to do it.

In recent years, firefighters have expanded their expertise well beyond the traditional trades to professions such as realtors, financial planners, tax consultants, accountants, and lawyers. You help one another when and where you can, which allows you to build our financial security. I can’t think of any professional in the private sector that can assemble such a vast network of experts willing to help their colleagues the way firefighters do.



As I mentioned earlier, firefighters will not be able to return to the fire service in the way that people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Michael Bloomberg can, but the contributions that firefighters can and do make can have similar effects on the fire service as well as the public they serve.

Firefighters give back to the fire service in many ways. Many firefighters take the time to serve as instructors at their local fire academies, indoctrinating new recruits to the new career they have chose. Usually, these positions in the fire academy are reserved for ranking offices in the department who are very well seasoned. The experience and stature that these seasoned fire officers have gained throughout their careers blends the perfect mix of leadership and mentoring that new recruits need. These instructors give freely, building the next generation of firefighters while preserving the historical traditions of the fire service. These seasoned fire officers also serve as mentors and role models to junior officers within their departments. It is necessary to any successful organization to have people in its midst who will give back to their organization.

Other firefighters will contribute to their organization by serving on committees that are organized for the sole purpose of improving their department. To serve on a committee, you must have the personal knowledge and respect of your peers and superiors. Committees are formed in every department to examine equipment/apparatus purchases, standard operating procedures, health and safety enhancements, and many other aspects of a modern fire department. The work involved in sitting on these types of committees is not glamorous and usually goes unseen, but for those who contribute their time and knowledge, the reward is knowing that they are building a better fire department for those presently on the job and for those who will come in the future.

For those who have the discipline and skill, grant writing is an excellent way to give back to the department. Grant writing is a long and tedious process that requires time, discipline, and expertise in the area of public safety. A firefighter who can work through this process and bring new equipment into his fire department will be making a serious contribution to that department. There are great needs in every fire department and, in most cases, very limited funding available to meet these needs; this leaves grant opportunities as the only means to properly equip fire departments. Writing a grant request is never a guarantee that your needs will be met but a successful grant request will benefit the department as a whole. A firefighter who undertakes this challenge will spend countless hours researching, preparing, and submitting a grant request with the only reward being that of giving back to hid department. This process does not need to be a one-person effort; the use of grant writing committees can also be effective.

Many firefighters have also contributed to their departments by organizing seminars and training lectures delivered by nationally recognized experts. There is always a positive impact on a department when a recognized national expert in your field delivers a professional seminar to a local community. Developing a program that addresses the challenges that firefighters face that is delivered by someone who firefighters only read about will resonate with all who attend. Firefighters who understand this impact and organize these kinds of seminars are making contributions that serve only to professionalize their department; they are, in a sense, giving back.

When you talk about returning and giving back to your department, there are some basic elements that are in play. Firefighters start their careers with little knowledge of the fire service, but they quickly evolve and learn about their craft and how to work with their colleagues. Through the early years, they learn at a tremendous rate, taking in vast amounts of knowledge every day and applying this knowledge to their craft. As their careers progress, they find themselves still learning, but now at a slower pace. They find themselves acting more as teachers and less as learners. This is to be expected, though it comes as a surprise to most firefighters when they see this evolution in themselves.

When firefighters begin to recognize this new role and become comfortable with it, they quickly move into the “returning” phase of their career. This last phase of your career can be the most rewarding. It is at this time that they begin to make contributions that will do nothing more than improve the lives of the firefighters and the department in which they work and, by extension, their community. The amazing thing about this phase is that you do this for the sole purpose of making things better without a thought of personal gain of any kind. In the fire service, this is truly giving back in a way that only firefighters can. This will build your department in ways that simple monetary contributions can never achieve. They can build the fabric, skills, and tradition of their department. Many firefighters, early in their careers, can never envision themselves returning in these ways, but by in large, most firefighters feel compelled to give something back to the department they love when they reach the point where they are nearing the end of their careers.

Don’t wait until you have retired to think about what may have been; take the opportunity to return to your department before you begin your retirement wondering what you might have done differently.


THOMAS N. WARREN is a 40+-year fire service veteran in both career and volunteer departments. He recently retired as an assistant chief of department for the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. 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. Warren serves on the Academic Advisory Island Board in the Fire Science Program at the Community College of Rhode Island.



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