Luke Schneider is living his dream today.
Not only is he a firefighter paramedic for the city of Rockford, Illinois, but he’s the founder of Fire Dept. Coffee, a rapidly growing company that roasts specialty coffee and directly supports first responders who have been injured on the job, mentally or physically, or who are facing serious illness.
Turning his dream into reality began with his time in the U.S. Navy from 2004 to 2008. In fact, Fire Dept. Coffee’s newest roast, Shellback Espresso, honors a centuries-old seafaring tradition and the men and women who proudly call themselves Shellbacks. As a nod to the ceremony that follows a sailor’s first crossing of the equator, the coffee is a blend of espresso beans harvested from countries along the equator, including Indonesia, Colombia and Brazil.
Schneider recently shared with us the key lessons that he learned during his transition from sailor to firefighter and entrepreneur.
What were the biggest factors in making a successful transition from the Navy to a civilian career?
In the military, it begins with a mission. From there, you have a specific plan of exactly what needs to be done to accomplish that mission. Everything you do is designed to bring you closer to achieving that goal.
My dream has always been to become a professional firefighter. I always remind people that every sailor is trained as a firefighter. I joined the Navy because I knew that it would prepare me and that I would be a better firefighter because of my time in the military.
I served on an aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. When I arrived, I was assigned to the machinist’s mate shop. I might have spent my entire Navy career there, but because I had a plan, I asked the senior chief petty officer if I could be moved to damage control, where the firefighters train.
Fortunately, he agreed. I left the Navy in 2008 as a damage control supervisor, having learned a wide range of skills and tactics that would serve me well in my next career and in life.
How did you use what you learned in the Navy to help you start your firefighting career?
To become a firefighter, you have to pass tests before you can even get an interview. There’s a written test. There’s an oral exam. And there’s the physical test.
Obviously, veterans know all about PT tests. If you can pass a military PT test, you should be able to pass a firefighting PT test. But it’s important to stay in top shape when you leave the military. If you let your fitness slip, it will cost you.
For the other tests, I tried to be as prepared as possible every step of the way. Most fire departments will award preference points for being a veteran. I always tell aspiring firefighters to find out exactly how the departments you are interested in award preference points because they are not the same from one place to the next.
After I left the Navy, I took fire science classes at the local community college and earned a vocational certificate. I also became an EMT basic. And while those experiences were valuable, I ended up not getting any preference points from them.
For my oral exam, I did extremely well because I treated it like I was going before a military promotion board. I showed up with a fresh haircut, cleanly shaved and dressed perfectly. I greeted everyone in order of their rank. I kept my answers short and confident.
“Yes, commissioner” … “No, commissioner.”
I later found out that one of the reasons I got the job I wanted was because, during my oral exam, I spoke about the importance of teamwork. That’s something that in the military is absolutely crucial, and it carries over into the civilian world.
How did all your experiences lead you to create your business, Fire Dept. Coffee?
One of the big things that the military and the fire service have in common is long hours. In the Navy, I learned very early on that coffee is your friend. You have to stay alert and sharp at all times. For me, coffee helps — a lot.
Eventually, my wife and I got into roasting our own coffee, and we really developed a passion for it. Fire Dept. Coffee is the culmination of my Navy experience, my firefighting experience and our passion for roasting coffee.
But just like in the military, what drives us is the mission. Beyond roasting great coffee, our mission is to help our heroic first responders in their time of need. So we also created the Fire Dept. Coffee Foundation to direct 10% of net proceeds directly to those who are ill or injured firefighters and first responders or to other organizations that serve those heroes.
The mission keeps us motivated and focused. So when we roast great coffee, more people will want to buy it. The more people buy our coffee, the more we can serve our heroes and fulfill our mission.
How has your veteran status helped you as a business owner?
There are a lot of resources out there for veteran-owned or veteran-led businesses. At Fire Dept. Coffee, we’ve benefited a great deal from Grow with Google. Obviously, Google is one of the world’s biggest companies and they are using that status to help others.
Grow with Google helps veterans by giving them a variety of tools to start and grow their next careers. They chose to highlight Fire Dept. Coffee on National First Responders Day in 2018. That was a great experience, and we got a lot of positive attention that has helped us continue to move forward and achieve our mission.
I’d encourage any transitioning military member to take advantage of all the opportunities and resources that come with being a veteran. People want to see veterans succeed and they want to help. It’s up to you to find those people or companies or programs and then to work hard to take advantage of every opportunity.