By Kenny Cline
Preplanning in the fire service is traditionally conducted by locating the fire department connections, identifying ownership and contact information, mapping the floor plan, reviewing emergency plans, and establishing response procedures to mitigate an anticipated but unplanned emergency. Unfortunately, many firefighters, EMS workers, law enforcement officers, and others serving the public on a volunteer, career, or part-time basis have an incomplete or nonexistent preplan for the most important day of their life: their last day. Although the last day of our lives is a sensitive subject of a personal nature, all of us can anticipate that we will one day leave those we love the most. Few of us know when that day will come. Preplanning for this event is the most important preplan a public safety officer will ever write. The irony is he will never be the one to use it.
Preplanning the last day of your life is something that you must do for the benefit of those you leave behind, no matter how difficult or painful this process may be. By using the preplanning process, you can make your wishes and desires known to others, preventing them from making any agonizing decisions. Creating and maintaining a will, obtaining a life insurance policy, planning or purchasing funeral arrangements, organizing essential documents, and clarifying your wishes are the most important things that can be done to preplan that last day.
The loss of a loved one is overwhelmingly stressful. The actions mentioned above are critical and will prevent your survivors from suffering additional pressure and misery. Imagine that lost feeling when in a strange place with no idea of where you are, what your tools and resources are, where to get information, or even where you can get a breath of air. This is similar to the frustration and confusion surrounding your friends and family who, without your guidance, are fearful of making a mistake concerning your final wishes and affairs. They will climb mountains to support you, but they will wish they had your guidance to get through this labyrinth.
Public safety officers, who die in the line of duty, may not be aware of the challenges they leave for their departments and families to face. There are state and federal programs, such as the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB), that may help to relieve the financial impacts of their passing. Those benefits require supporting documents and procedures that must be followed.
What are the key areas to developing an end of life preplan? Is it really that complicated? Is it truly something that makes you afraid, or could it be that you must face and acknowledge the fact that one day, you too will die? Yes, go ahead and swallow it; I get the same lump in my throat and feel the same dull ache drop through my chest when I hear those words. It bothers me to think of that event and it is truly easier to close my eyes, change the subject, and convince myself that I will plan for it tomorrow.
I have met many survivors of firefighters that have become associated with the National Fallen Fighters Foundation after the line-of-duty death (LODD) of their loved one. These members of our distant family were not only alone in that maze, but they had no idea what tools they had, where they were, where the closet exit was, or where the next breath of air was going to come from. They were smothered by the weight of the situation. Listening to them tell their stories, share their pains, and openly discuss the dark maze that they went through cannot even compare to that little bit of discomfort I felt when thinking of the last day of my life.
Recently, I talked with a widow who had just buried her recently retired husband who was beginning a new life with his wife, away from the life of firefighter. He was a healthy, vibrant man who was wrestling the world by its horns and riding into a new life like we all dream of doing. As I sat there and listened to her talk, I saw the pain and the worries. I could see she was lost in that dark maze. I had never spoken with her before that day and may never cross paths with her again, but I will forever strive to prevent that kind of ache from happening to anyone in my public safety officer family.
Let’s talk about the end-of-life preplan. How can you follow the same principles you use every day, and prevent your coworkers from being lost and possibly never recovering from injuries you could have prevented? You know the end of your life is coming and you know what challenges are ahead for those who will be left standing alone.
First, take a look at your life, just like you would a building. Look at it from a distance; look at it up close; look at the foundation; look at it from inside; look at what it supports; look at the weak points; look at the areas that may be a little more stressed or show a little more age than others. How will your faith impact your last wishes? For those that rely on you, what will they need and what will be the best way for you to plan for their needs. How will your abrupt absence impact your associations, civic groups, and various community ties? What will become of your materialistic possessions and your collection of toys and treasures? Most importantly, take a look in your safe and in your piggy bank. Where and what are your assets, and are they sufficient?
At a critical time, you know how important it is to have the right information on hand. Names, phone numbers, blueprints, and access information at a building fire can be the difference between success and a mess. The same applies to preplanning the last day of your life.
You must consider some things when preplanning for your last day of life. You have your crew and survivors now, but it will be their journey once we turn them loose. When making a preplan, you must ask yourself:
- Who are the ones to be called and where are their phone numbers kept?
- Who will be making the decisions that are not already made?
- Where are the insurance policies?
- Do you know what type of insurance you have and what benefits it contains?
- Who are the beneficiaries?
- What payments and regular bills do you have?
- Are these bills within reach or can they only be found during overhaul?
- Is there a will or formal document that lays everything out beforehand?
- Is there a trust that will address all the financial and property concerns?
- Will the assets cover your debts, and in what order will they be listed?
- How will the assets be played out in the future? Will they be once lump sum or predetermined, periodic allotments?
- What will be your final resting place?
- Who will be the ones helping to clear the path ahead for your crew?
These are the questions that must be answered, and your company is the one who will be left to do it. Share your thoughts with them on how to push ahead, and be able to accept their input, worries, and fears.
Almost every good preplan that I wrote or heard of ended up on a shelf covered in dust because it was never used or reviewed and, quite frankly, because something more important or glamorous came along. That plan is the most important plan of your life. Don’t hide it or cover it up. Don’t let it be written in vein because you are afraid to pick it back up when you start seeing the signs of physical decay and structural integrity loss. Just like buildings that undergo new tenants in a changing society, you go through many changes in a lifetime; sometimes our desires and beliefs can change as well. At different points in your life, the path your crew will take when you leave will be safer and more secure than others. Review the plan periodically, and especially review it when there is a major change in occupancy.
A good preplan is useless when it is hidden and unknown and never discussed or debated. It is necessary that others know the plan. They may play a bigger role in it than they realize, and they may even be affected in ways they are not prepared to handle. Others will also see what you have done and realize that it is not difficult. This will encourage them to make their own plan, and they may further analyze your strategies and tactics for their own use. They may even share something with you that you are not aware of, and can then use this to improve your own plan.
Although writing a will, researching insurance policies, and making funeral arrangements may be time-consuming and painful, they will save your loved ones immeasurable stress. Like every preplan, focus on one small piece at a time until it is done. One simple and quick step that can be made is establishing a PSOB beneficiary and placing it on file with your department. State and federal laws place this burden on the fire chief, and if the documentation is not present and on file, benefits in the event of a LODD could be denied. A one-page PSOB beneficiary form is available and can be placed on your department’s letterhead. Once this form is signed and placed in your personnel file, it will prevent a very complicated situation if your name is on a U.S. Fire Administration fatality announcement. I know that every time I read one of those emails, I think not only have we lost the nozzle, but I hope no one has been left lost in a maze with the world coming down around them. You and I both know that feeling.
For the benefit of your crew, your family, and your loved ones, take two minutes to begin your most important preplan. Designate a beneficiary and place that information in your personnel file. Afterward, complete a formal preplan for your last day. Review the building (your life), find the necessary information (important documents), sit down with your company (loved ones), and discuss the best way to get through the dreadful maze your death will leave. File that plan where it can easily be found and share it with everyone else in the department. Anything short of a formalized and shared plan will only lead to more work, hurt, pain, strain, and fight or flight reactions from those you will leave behind. We all know the benefit of a preplan at an emergency scene. This preplan is no different; it truly is the most important preplan you can ever complete. Take the time to do it today.
Kenneth W. Cline EMTP, BA, EFO, is the West Virginia coordinator for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation's LAST program. A former volunteer chief, he is a captain on the Charleston (WV) Fire Department and is an instructor for the National Fire Academy.