Is It Time for a Change? 

Steve Schnaudt

October 13, 2022

In past generations, it was common to work for a single employer for your entire career and then simply retire. Whether a corporate job in New York City or on an assembly line in Detroit, most folks would put in 30 or 40 years for the same organization and gracefully retire with their gold watch and pension.

Well, now it seems this type of longevity may be nothing but a relic of past generations. In the fire service (and many other professions), it is now relatively common for people to change jobs. I did. I know of firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics who have worked for up to five (or more) different departments before they finally found their niche and settled in for the long haul. Some people leave the profession entirely.

My personal journey started in much the same way as most of my fellow firefighters. I began as a volunteer firefighter and became enamored with the idea of doing it for a living. So I transitioned from hobby to vocation in 1993. I went to work for a small suburban department where my primary role was to respond to ambulance calls as an EMT/Firefighter. As with many small departments, our personnel were expected to wear multiple hats. HazMat technician, confined space rescue technician, firefighter, and, of course, EMT. It was not uncommon for our ambulance crews, staffed by cross-trained firefighters, to perform primary searches or assist with stretching attack lines at fires when we weren't tied up on medical runs.

I thoroughly enjoyed the 9 years I was with my first agency. I was (and still am) eternally grateful to the man who hired me and the officers who mentored me and gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to grow as a person and a professional. Leaving to pursue a new opportunity was one of the hardest decisions of my life. But, after 9 years with my first department, I sensed that our organizational progress toward a more comprehensive and dynamic response model had simply stalled out.

It was time for a change.

I was blessed to work and become lifelong friends with some exceptionally talented people in my first department. Still, I decided to test for and ultimately accept a position in a fire department in a neighboring community. There I would spend the next 20 years of my career, and from where I retired as a Captain only a few short months ago.

When I resigned from my first department, I was very concerned about how this would be perceived by my co-workers. Would I be considered disloyal? Or be accused of turning my back on my brothers and sisters? Would there be hard feelings or resentment?

Most were supportive and understanding. Remember, a significant investment of time and money goes out the door when a seasoned employee resigns from a department. They've trained you and provided you an opportunity to gain valuable experience. Now you're walking away, taking their investment to a new agency. Suppose you are leaving an organization known for high turnover. In that case, there may be frustration over losing yet another employee.

The first town I worked for was primarily serviced by volunteer fire departments and employed a minimal cadre of paid fire personnel on a daytime-only schedule. Conversely, the organization I went to work for is a 24-hour career-staffed department with only a few volunteers.

Although the new place was still a small fire department, it was larger in terms of career staffing than the department I left. The new agency wasn't hamstrung by career vs. volunteer politics. The pay was comparable, and the new department's schedule was much more appealing.

I've spoken to many people who have left fire departments for new agencies, and there are various reasons they have done so. The most common reasons people move on are organizational leadership issues and/or a lack of support from their agency's management. Other common factors include a better salary, a more favorable work schedule, and more opportunities for advancement. Some leave for larger, busier departments (some also leave for smaller, slower departments!), increased job security, familial connections to the new organization, etc. The list is endless. If you asked 10 different people why they left their old fire job for their current one, you'd undoubtedly get 10 different answers or a mix of similar reasons.

Some folks leave and realize the grass isn't greener on the other side of the fence. So they sometimes end up right back where they started out.

The worst thing you can probably do when you leave a job to move on is to burn bridges at the old place. What's the point? After all, the reason you are going is personal.

Be honest but objective if you are fortunate enough to be granted an exit interview. Understand that the person you are talking to might have little or no control over the issues resulting in employee turnover.

But, if the person you are talking to is why you are leaving, tell them so. Politely. Remember, don't make it personal.

List your reasons for leaving. Be specific. Suppose you know yourself well enough to realize an exit interview with your old boss could result in a potentially unfortunate encounter. In that case, your best option is to graciously decline. Just walk away with your dignity intact and thank them for the opportunity to serve the community. Then, start off fresh with a clean slate at the new job.

Regardless of your reasons for changing jobs, always remember that you learn something from every person you've worked with. You are putting life, leadership, and tactical lessons into your toolbox. These alter your perceptions and become a part of who you are.

Even when you leave, hopefully, you've grown and matured as a person and a professional. You are taking your experience and training to your new job. Everything you've added to your mental filing cabinet at your old job will guide how you respond and interact in your future experiences.

Your old job has shaped you. It is a part of your roots. Leaving something you've personally invested so much of yourself in can be an excruciatingly difficult decision.

Many people never realize the dream of being a career firefighter or paramedic. Cherish your time and those who have mentored you every step of your journey. And remember, if you decide to move on, don't forget where you came from.

Steven Schnaudt is a retired Captain with the Robbinsville Township Fire Department in New Jersey. He is a Nationally Registered paramedic and a Level 2 fire instructor with over 30 years in fire and EMS. He has been published in both Fire Engineering Magazine and 1st Responder Newspaper and is almost always available on Twitter at @FireMedic40NJ.