Monday, December 14, 2009

Have a back-up plan

If your career is in fire or EMS you have one of the greatest jobs possible. Having spent 30 years in the fire service, maybe I am a little biased. All things considered, it’s a pretty good career path. But what if something happened that meant you would not be a firefighter any more. Maybe you are involved in an accident that leaves you disabled. Maybe you have a heart attack at a young age that leaves you unable to return to work. Maybe you’ve been “downsized” as a result to the current economy. Maybe you unexpectedly find yourself working for a psycho boss and you decide to quit instead of enduring the stress of working for the boss from hell. Perhaps you were lucky enough to get hired at 18 and now you’re 50 and you can retire and move on to a new chapter in your life. Whatever the reason, you’re now a civilian again. Now what are you going to do?

There are many ways you can find yourself unemployed. Some may be planned. Some may not be. Regardless of where you are in your career, it would be wise for you to pause and say to yourself: If I could not be a firefighter, what else am I prepared to do? How else could I earn my living? How could I support my family? How would I find satisfaction in life? It is not the first day you wake up unemployed that you want to give thought to these questions.

One of the best pieces of advice that was given to me early in my career was: Have a plan B. Develop another skill or acquire knowledge or training that will prepare you to do something else… just in case. This advice was given to me during a time when I was contemplating switching my major in college from business administration to fire science. I was already two years into the business program when the desire to be a firefighter-paramedic overwhelmed me. I was completely consumed by the desire to serve. I was getting some awesome experience working for several fire and EMS departments. It was a good time in my life. I was having lots of fun. There was nothing more I wanted than to be a firefighter-paramedic.

I talked with a trusted advisor about switching majors to fire science. Surely that would help me get hired full-time on a fire department and help launch my career. My advisor was a firefighter and an instructor so I just knew he would be on-board with my decision to change my major. But he wasn’t. In fact, he strongly discouraged me from switching my major to fire science. I wasn’t expecting to receive that advice.

But when he explained his logic, it made perfect sense. He explained that a degree in fire science was not an essential component to getting a fire job. But, having a college degree would likely give me a few extra points in the hiring process. He explained that a fire science degree would be useful so long as I worked for a fire department but it would not have much usefulness if I ever moved on to doing something else. A business degree, on the other hand, would have usefulness within the fire department and would also open other doors of opportunity if I ever could not be a firefighter.

I was young and full of enthusiasm to be a firefighter. The thought of doing anything else never crossed my mind. I didn’t want to imagine that such a scenario would ever happen to me. Nonetheless, I valued his advice. After all, he had a good career in the fire service and his degree was in secondary education. So how could I argue with his logic?

I stayed in the business program and graduated with degrees in finance and economics. Then while serving as a volunteer firefighter-paramedic and company officer I continued in school and earned my master’s degree in business administration. Then came my big break… I got hired into my first full-time fire department job… as the fire chief. Talk about starting at the top! If I didn’t have 10 years of solid, progressively responsible volunteer experience and a master’s degree in business administration I don’t think I would have been a contender for the job. So my career was underway. But all the while, in the back of my mind there was the constant reminder of the sage advice from my mentor: What would I do if the day came when I would no longer be a firefighter? What was my Plan B?

That voice would nag at me. I can vividly remember him saying: Be prepared. So I went back to school again, this time to earn a doctor of philosophy degree. I had lots of friends and professional associates ask me why I would do such a thing, especially this late in life and with four school-aged kids at home? I knew I needed to have a solid Plan B. I needed to have something else to do when that day came.

To be fair, it was not only the additional education that helped prepare me for that day. I also started teaching classes and writing for journals early in my career (before the creation of Internet magazines and blogs). The more I wrote the better writer I became. The more I taught the better teacher I became. This was coupled with my insatiable desire to learn and for continual self-improvement. I read everything I could get my hands on. I attended every class I could. I never passed up an opportunity to teach a class or to volunteer for an assignment.

My upbringing in a family of blue-collar hard-working, whatever-it-takes steelworkers was evident in my work ethic. I didn’t realize it at the time I was growing up, but being in an environment of hardworking parents was also preparing me for my Plan B career. Unlike some, I was fortunate that my Plan B was just that… a plan. When I went back to school for my PhD I knew that when I completed this degree it would be time to put my newly acquired education to use and that would not be possible in a capacity of my current job. Completing my terminal degree would signal a graduation celebration… a graduation from school… and a graduation from the fire service career I had enjoyed for 30 years. It was a good run… and it felt good to have a plan. It felt even better when my plan came together.

All of this because 28 years ago I had a mentor who convinced me I should have a strong Plan B. That advice put me squarely in the driver’s seat to set my own destiny. Now I am doing work that I absolutely love and I feel so accomplished. I have more time for my family. My stress level is significantly lower and I feel like my consulting, teaching, writing and podcast messages are making a difference toward improving firefighter safety and fire service leadership. My blessings are many… because I had a Plan B.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP

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