Dispatches: July 2018
Life beyond the fire service
I left my full-time job as an instructor at the Ontario Fire College in December 2017. After 18 months in what many would describe as a career highlight, I realized that the position just wasn’t “it” for me. I didn’t really know what “it” was, but I instinctively knew that wasn’t “it”.
So, what have I been doing the past five and half months? The words professional student, knowledge sponge, learn-all-I-can-as-fast-as-I-can all come to mind as apt descriptions of my incubation period.In fact, incubation period may just be the most accurate descriptor.
I learned many important life lessons while at the college but perhaps the most powerful came in the form of the feedback I gleaned from the student evaluations. After every class, I would read the student evaluations (not the actual evaluations as they are submitted directly to the academic manager in a sealed envelope), but a summary of the students’ comments and ratings collated by a tracking system called Class Climate.
What caught my attention were comments that described me as “passionate, engaging and knowledgeable about the subject matter.” Granted, the expectation is that instructors should be all of those things, but as the newest instructor at the college, at times I fought feelings of not measuring up. Another comment that I’d seen repeated was about my ability to make people feel comfortable and create an inclusive environment.
Although I am very passionate about the fire service and I believed in the power of what I was teaching, whether it was public educator, fire inspector or fire instructor, I knew deep down that there were things that I was more passionate about.
Which led me to question: “How can I impact people in a way that’s more congruent with who I am?”
I respect the educational goals of the fire college and fully appreciate the challenges faced meeting its mission. My colleagues at the college are among the most professional, passionate, dedicated people I’ve ever worked with. I knew in my heart, however, that there was something else I was called to do. I wanted to expand upon the trait that allowed me to connect with people the way I had at the college.
My goal was always to empower people. At the college, I did that by teaching the courses in my portfolio to the best of my ability. I may not have been the most knowledgeable person in the room, but I always brought enthusiasm and authenticity to the class. I shared stories of my life to foster connection, made fun of myself on a routine basis and tied the subject matter I was teaching back to relatable concepts in their fire prevention and suppression work lives, and home lives too.
I realized that’s what I wanted to do full time. Empower people.
I’m an advocate for mental health awareness and conversations in class often turned to my belief in the power of looking out for each other, in your firehall family and your home family. Everyone in the fire service is connected by a common thread of wanting to help others. It’s passion that firefighters draw upon time and time again to keep facing what they face day after day.
I took that passion and goal of empowering people and spent the last several months studying coaching. My first program was in Holistic Wellness Coaching, because being healthy can only happen when your mind, body, work and relationships are all in alignment. It’s like the four tires on a car; you can’t get very far with a flat tire and that one flat tire puts stress on the other three.
The second program I enrolled in was Body Language Trainer. As an introvert, I am keenly aware of feeling awkward and less than comfortable in my own skin. I’d discovered that using a couple of body language hacks increased my feelings of confidence and competence in the classroom as an instructor, so when I stumbled across Vanessa Van Edward’s TedTalk “You Are Contagious” and then her website, I knew I had pinpointed another passion that I could definitely dive into and help others with.
The third program I did was a group coaching program that lasted three months and concluded with a trip to North Carolina and a weekend retreat where I was surrounded by a group of women on the same journey within. It was by far the most empowering thing I’ve ever done.
I decided to leave the fire service after returning to my volunteer department for about two months once I’d left the college. I found that dropping everything and running wasn’t in alignment with the more zen way of life I was now embracing, and it was time to step aside and let a younger generation of passion fueled firefighters carry on. I started in the fire service in 1992 as a dispatcher and although it was bittersweet to step out of my bunkers after 20 plus years, I have a new mission to support from behind the scenes.
One of the hardest things I’ve experienced in my life was asking for help when I needed it; partly because of the stigma around mental health and partly because I was used to responding to calls for help, not reaching out for help.
My new passion is empowering others and helping reignite that spark that we sometimes lose because helpers need help sometimes too.
Jennifer’s 26 year career encompassed roles as dispatcher, volunteer firefighter, FPO, inspector and instructor. She is now a resilience and empowerment coach and certified body language trainer.
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