Nico Smith didn’t just want to earn a living, but “earn a living”. She wanted to feel alive.
This desire prompted her to quit her $116,000-a-year job as a lawyer in February 2020 to strike out on her own. She eventually started her own law firm and later discovered a passion for firefighting.
“A lot of things in my life were in flux back then,” the 36-year-old California resident told CNBC Make It. His ex-wife had just moved to Portland, Oregon, and they had also recently adopted a son together. Working in a law firm “no longer suited my lifestyle”.
It depended on his sanity. “As a lawyer, you spend a lot of time sitting in a chair and I get bees in my lap. I like to move,” Smith says. “I was gaining a lot of weight. I wasn’t feeling well in my body anymore. I needed to find something that would allow me to have more balance in my life.”
Now Smith brings in about $11,000 a year as a part-time firefighter and about $43,000 as a lawyer. And she is much happier.
After quitting his job at the law firm, Smith had to find a way to support himself and his son. Fortunately, she had a stable support system in her family and was able to move in with her parents.
“My parents really helped me,” she says. “They have a house here…in the woods, and I was able to support myself because I had my parents’ house. I was really lucky.”
Smith also had around $10,000 in savings. At the time, “there weren’t a lot of external expenses that weighed on me. It was just really basic, the bare necessities that I had to work with,” she says.
In May 2020, Smith decided to start his own law firm. “I needed something to do,” she said. “We needed a way to have income and continue.”
However, she did not earn much in her own business. She says she could earn more if she pursued it full-time, but since childcare was hard to come by during the pandemic, she only worked part-time. In 2021, Smith brought in $43,000 from legal work.
Then, in August 2020, Smith found out what life as a firefighter could be like.
Lightning struck the hillside of his parents’ property, causing a small fire. A group of local firefighters responded and started up the hill to put out the fire, but Smith and her mother knew there was a road leading directly to where she was. They followed the group up the hill and pointed them in the direction of the road.
Smith has always been interested in firefighting and decided to ask Captain about becoming a volunteer firefighter. The captain explained that the area does not have volunteer firefighters – but they do have paid call firefighters, who earn an hourly wage for the calls they make. Smith wanted to come in.
After applying to become a firefighter, interviewing, and passing a drug test and background check, Smith eventually attended the fire academy. She graduated in May 2021 and now works part-time as a paid on-call firefighter, earning $15 an hour.
live with less
Although she may not make nearly $116,000, Smith is far from unhappy. “It’s invigorating,” she says. “It’s exciting. The people are amazing and you can be out there. I really love all those things and I really love helping people.”
Smith currently works about 10 to 15 hours a week at the fire station between training and calls. She still works part-time as a lawyer, where she works about 15 overtime hours per week. Between the two, it “mixes [into] a very poorly paid full-time job,” she says.
The drastic drop in revenue is worth it for Smith. Being a firefighter is “really about what it means to be alive”.
Smith is also in school to become an emergency medical technician (EMT) and is on track to complete his training by the end of the year. After that, she plans to become a paramedic, which will put her in a good position to find a full-time job at a fire station, she says.
Smith says she could make between $50,000 and $100,000 with a full-time position. “You can definitely have a sustainable lifestyle as a paramedic firefighter, even if it won’t cost $120,000,” she says.
But that was never the driving force behind Smith’s career choices. “I don’t think it’s healthy for humans to do anything just for the money,” Smith says. “You have to find something that makes you feel like you’re doing something right.”
For her, it’s firefighting.
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