By Sam DiGiovanna
I remember when I first started the fire service. I was around 19 years old. Out of the blue, my captain (an “old” guy about 35 years old) asked me, “What’s your ultimate goal in the fire service?” I excitedly replied, “To be fire chief!” (To be honest, at that point I didn’t even really know I wanted to be a chief. I just thought it was the “correct” response.)
The captain vehemently responded: “NO! Your goal is to have a good fire service career, being safe and smart enough to live a happy, healthy retirement!”
When you’re 19 years old and just starting the fire service, retirement is the furthest thing from your mind. You can’t imagine being chief, let alone retiring.
But before you know it, 30-plus years go by. You promote to positions you never thought you would. During those years, each cycle of shifts seems like eternity. But as I look back now, it’s like it all happened in the blink of an eye.
Though my mind still thinks like that 19-year-old (for the most part), the aches, pains and increased recovery time tell me something else. Not to mention the feeling of “Who is that guy?” when I look in the mirror!
Now I see exactly what my captain meant back then. I wish we would have had more awareness about lifelong firefighter safety and health. Those years have really taken a toll on me and other firefighters from my generation. Some did not live long after retirement; many have diseases and injuries from the job.
Not to mention the effect this profession can have on our mental health. Thirty-plus years of responding to all types of fires and medical calls can be traumatic physically and mentally. Fortunately, we now have critical incident stress debriefings after significant incidents, which can help us work through the mental and emotional trauma. But many of us still carry significant emotional scars.
As fire service leaders, we’re trained to manage complex incidents and significant events. Have you ever considered your career to be a significant event?
Take a step back and size up your career like it’s an incident. You’re the incident commander (IC) of your career. We’ll name this the “30 Year Incident.” You’re assuming “30-year IC.” Make sure you:
• Make safety a priority.
• Take advantage of your health benefits and ensure you get checked out with annual medical exams.
• Exercise and eat right.
• Rehab with time off.
• Make this incident a joint command—include your spouse or significant other and kids in your plan. Don’t forget them!
• Look at all sides. When the administration says something or comes out with a new policy, look at it from their side, not just the labor side.
• Maintain situational awareness at all times. Be prepared for promotions, injuries, deaths (family and departmental), divorces, loss—you name it, it will happen during this incident you’re running.
• Have a rapid intervention crew available—friends you can rely on to help you out when you’re in trouble.
• Watch out for hazards such as negative people, unhealthy traps or vices.
• Always be positive and appreciative of what you have. You’re a firefighter! Do you know how many people would love to have our career?
Stay safe, stay smart. Put in a good fire service career and ensure you get to have a healthy, happy firefighter retirement!
SAM DIGIOVANNA is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif. He also is a consultant for Lexipol Fire Services.