The real reason firefighters quit: A lack of respect

Aretha had it right – it’s all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T, which for us means improving relationships with other agencies and officials


By Mark Klaene

We have been seeing a decline in volunteer fire service personnel for several years. However, recent events have seen some resignations or walkouts on larger scales than we have seen previously:

"While mass resignations can be prompted by several factors, I have witnessed several such situations where it came down to a fundamental lack of respect," writes Klaene. (Photo/Getty Images)

To better understand what is going on here, we need to look at people’s motives for becoming a firefighter in the first place.

Respect as a motivator

We may like to believe that every firefighter’s sole motive is the desire to serve the public. But the simple reality is many join the service for the badge, the excitement, the history or the adrenaline rush, to name just a few compelling reasons. And I should note that while career members have the added motive of salary, it isn’t always the most important factor to them.

When looking at why a single individual leaves the fire service, it is often the loss or change of one or more of their motivational factors for joining in the first place. But these reasons seldom cause resignations on such a large scale. While mass resignations can be prompted by several factors, I have witnessed several such situations where it came down to a fundamental lack of respect.

It's important to underscore that respect isn’t a given. Respect must be earned, and it must be maintained. It is also a two-way street; we must give respect in order to receive it. Respect isn’t earned by putting on the gear or driving the big new flashy apparatus, and it isn’t earned by simply walking in the door of the station. Giving respect means understanding others positions and viewpoints even when we disagree. It means recognizing others’ position of authority, knowledge and experience. Mutual respect usually means you don’t get what you want all the time. Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win, and often it just leads to something in the middle. Mutual respect doesn’t mean you give up your authority, or you chose popularity over what is best. It does mean inclusion and consideration in the discussions.

Sources of disrespect

Disrespect can come from internal and/or external sources.

Internal disrespect: We sometimes fail to respect our fellow firefighters and officers, not recognizing their hardships or their abilities. Disrespect could come in the form of asking too much or not including each other in discussions and decisions.

This is the easiest for us to solve because it is in house. It is something that we ourselves are causing and should understand. All officers and other firefighters should have been there before and understand what we are all are going through.

The reason it often isn’t corrected is because we fail to see it, or more likely, egos get in the way. I was told many years ago, “we can do great things if we don’t care who gets credit for it.”

External disrespect: Disrespect from external sources – local government, other fire agencies, law enforcement or our citizens – is harder to address. Often the root of the problem can be similar – ego or “turf battles.”

Control is a divisive issue between fire and law enforcement agencies as well as elected officials. Training and working together on common issues as well as communication on and off scene are some of the best ways to develop mutual respect. Visit these agencies, find mutual agreement and issues, and work together to address them. Respect drives cooperation between others.

In my county, everything changed when a coordinator was hired to be the single point of communication among the fire service and outside agencies. This step effectively reduced chiefs to station captains. It took away their independence to deal with the state fire marshal, county commissioners, as well as the Bureau of Land Management and the USFS. They lost their ability to offer input for important decisions, missed feedback from these agencies and, in effect, lost their identity. While the intent was not to disrespect these chiefs, that was the end result they experienced. The first mass resignation came within a year. This situation unfortunately continues today and still causes many issues, including multiple resignations of junior and senior personnel.

Addressing external respect issues takes a lot of effort, and it is best done in groups, repeated constantly and consistently. Such issues can’t be addressed just by a chief officer; everyone from the probationary firefighter to the chief must work on these issues every time we interact.

The solutions here are not easy, as turf battles seem to be ingrained in many agencies. The bottom line is these agencies serve a valuable purpose; they have a job to do just like us. But they have different priorities and perspective than us. It doesn’t make wrong, just different. This doesn’t mean we can’t agree when necessary. If everyone always looks at what is best for our citizens as the primary goal, we will reach agreement.

Disrespect one of us, disrespect all of us

When it seems like these issues can’t be fixed, mass resignations or walkouts may appear to be the only way to get others’ attention or to try to force our will. Unfortunately, such actions usually work against us in the long run.

Most firefighters no longer expect a “thank you” at every turn. However, they do expect recognition for their work and sacrifices. Many members of outside agencies have no concept of the training, work and sacrifices that firefighters experience. How many birthdays, graduations and school programs did we miss over the years? Firefighters want to feel valued and appreciated for their work.

And specific to volunteers, a sure way to kill a volunteer’s motivation is to not use them. All firefighters go through a lot to get where they are, and they want to participate.

Disrespect one of us, and you disrespect all of us. We are a brotherhood and sisterhood. We are a team. Firefighting is bigger than the one. We train, operate and, in some cases live, sleep and eat together, and when disrespected, we all feel it.

Respect is a basic human need that is important to an individual’s self-esteem. We must work at getting respect, and we must work at giving respect. Every firefighter, every time. It must be done on and off duty. In the station and out. We need to perform at our best, be kind, courteous, respectful of everyone we interact with. We need to be united and speak up, and we need to remember why we are here and who we serve.

About the author

Mark Klaene retired from fire service in 2021 after 32 years. He served as chief of department for a combined 23 years in two volunteer fire departments and as a training officer in another. Klaene also served as president of the Otero County (N.M.) Fire Fighters Association for three years and is a certified Fire Instructor I, Fire Inspector II, VFIS instructor and a single engine resource crew boss. He served 13 years as a New Mexico State Police Type 3 SAR incident commander. Klaene holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering technology from the University of Cincinnati.

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