By Billy W. Scearce, Jr.
Photos by author except as noted
When someone enters the fire service, they have decided to dedicate themselves to serving and sacrificing for others—sometimes that means making the ultimate sacrifice. Most of us don’t fully grasp how much the fire service requires of us when we first decide to serve. If you work long enough to draw full retirement, you have effectively given the department, municipality, community, and the fire service one-third of your professional life. Depending on your department, these many years of service will have taken a toll on you mentally and physically. You will be exposed to things you will never forget and things that will haunt your mind the rest of your life. You will also be exposed to many toxic chemicals that may have an adverse effect on your health and well-being. That said, are fire chiefs properly recognizing this unselfish service and providing an honorable send-off as you enter retirement?
Properly recognizing a firefighter entering retirement is important for many reasons, but mainly it’s the last opportunity to show your appreciation for their dedicated service. Here are a few things you as a chief officer and a department can do to help show a dedicated public servant you appreciate his or her service and sacrifice.
Set a date to allow all shifts to attend an informal gathering to permit those the firefighter has worked with to say goodbye. This can be done during an official shift meeting or it can be a special time set by the department to give fellow firefighters an opportunity to spend time with the retiring firefighter before his or her final shift. Not everyone will take the opportunity, but it is a nice gesture to give those who do a chance to talk and reminisce. This should not be an opportunity to “roast” or embarrass this firefighter with inappropriate stories or career mishaps. This can be done, if the firefighter desires, during a night out at a restaurant or bar with those he chooses to associate with.
Have a more formal recognition ceremony where family and friends can come and witness this firefighter’s recognition of service to the department. It is common for retirees to be honored with a ceremony that focuses on what they have accomplished during their career before presenting him or her with an award. This is an opportunity for the chief to present a token of appreciation for the retiring member’s dedication. If you as a chief or department do not currently do this, now is the time to consider doing so. This is the last opportunity you will have to thank the member and convey your thanks. Many departments have a yearly formal awards dinner/ceremony that recognizing employee service over the past year. This is the perfect opportunity to recognize your retiring firefighters for their service.
Recognizing the firefighter with a personal gift will be more meaningful than a generic plaque. In my final years with my former department, my engineer felt strongly about giving retirees a special gift specific to their service. He took it upon himself to purchase a nice shadowbox from a local store and design a collage of items that would be appreciated by the retiree. His design included a small plate with the department’s logo as well as the firefighter’s full name, rank, and years of service. Surrounding this plate were the firefighter’s current badge, name plate, rank pins, leather helmet shield, department patch, and other related patches if they served on specialty teams. It also had the name plate off the back of the retiring member’s turnout coat. These items were arranged in a way that reflected the last years of the firefighter’s career. Our station/shift paid out of pocket for the shadowbox and custom plate for many years. Once the department heard of the project, the chief decided he would like to provide this wonderful gift as a thank-you from the department.
Some departments give the new retiree a watch with his or her name and dates of service engraved on it. This is symbolic of the free time this firefighter will in retirement. It is also nice if the department and municipality provide a letter of gratitude for the firefighter’s many years of service to the community. This can be nicely framed as a keepsake that can be displayed on the wall in the firefighter’s home. Unions and departments alike often present retirees with a special ax with custom logos recognizing their years of service. Having department members sign a card for the retiree will give that firefighter a written memento of service. Periodically looking at the signatures can provide the firefighter a moment of reflection about those he or she had the honor to serve with. There are many tokens of appreciation that can be provided to thank the retiree; the list is only limited to the ideas that can be thought up by those in the department. These are merely suggestions for those departments that may not have a program or award already in place.
The one gesture I feel will make a lasting impression is having the chief come by the firehouse on the firefighter’s last shift to personally thank the member. This will show the soon-to-be retiree those he or she worked for truly cared about what they did. This token of thanks doesn’t cost a dime but will be priceless to the firefighter. It’s more than just a retirement recognition for this firefighter, it’s the last connection that public servant will make as he or she exists this phase of life. It reinforces the honor, pride, dedication, and duty to serve that is required to serve in the role as a firefighter.
Retired firefighters should always feel welcome to come back and have a cup of coffee or hang out occasionally to fill the void that will come. Being a firefighter means you are part of something bigger than yourself. You have been a part of a family, a brotherhood and sisterhood that not many understand. You have spent as much if not more time with these other brave individuals than you spend with you own family. Leaving the fire service is hard for many. It can feel as if you have lost a family member or been through a divorce. The disconnect can be hard to adjust to, so it is imperative that new retirees still feels part of the family. Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are real killers in the fire service. Never let a retiree feel they are no longer welcome in his or her own home. The consequences can be devastating.
There are two very important things to consider when recognizing your retiree. First, ensure that whatever in done in a professional manner. This will be the last official act you as a chief or department do for this dedicated public servant. Give the retiring firefighter the proper respect and honor he or she deserves. Second, always include the family members in whatever you do. Spouses, children, parents, siblings need to be invited to enjoy this recognition. They too have sacrificed in this journey to retirement. Allow them the honor of seeing their loved one appreciated by the individuals he or she has served alongside.
Many departments have a way to give honor, praise, and gratitude for the many years of service by firefighters. Whether it is in a formal setting or informal; take the opportunity to do something special for the retiring firefighter. If you’re not doing so, then take this opportunity to explore ways your department can properly recognize and thank a firefighter entering retirement. It’s the last chance to show your members that their service was appreciated and worth their investment.
Below is an example of what the Danville Professional Firefighter’s Association (D.P.F.F.A.), IAFF Local 2532, does when one of our members retires from the department. This began around 15 years ago when the union president realized there was a need to thank its retiring members. It is now a tradition that is appreciated by all the members (and family members) of Local 2532.
When there are two or more DPFFA members who have retired from the Danville Fire Department (DFD), a time is set by union officers, usually in June, to recognize those retirees for their service. Formal invitations are sent out to all in the department, DPFFA, city officials, and others suggested by the retirees. Reservations are made at a local venue within the city that caters to high-end events. The venue provides a formal (Class A uniform, suit/tie/ for men, dresses for ladies) setting with areas for speaking and dining. The venue provide a full-course meal supplied by a catering company. Once the invitations are RSVP’d, a head count is provided to the venue to secure adequate seating and food for the attendees. A committee is formed prior to provide the decorations and “honor tables” for each retiree attending. The honor table has items provided by each family to reflect the career of each individual member. It usually has photos, personal items, departmental items, and other awards and recognitions from their careers.
At the beginning of the ceremony, family members of each retiree are shown where they will be seated and they post at the entrance for the arrival of the retiree. A DFD apparatus delivers the retirees to the venue with lights and siren, as this will be their last ride on the department’s unit. The retirees are gathered at the entrance and the Danville Professional Firefighter’s Honor Guard escorts each member and their families to their respective tables. All other attendees have previously been seated awaiting their arrival. Once all retirees and family members have been seated, the union president welcomes all and gets the designated religious representative to offer a prayer. Dinner is served and a PowerPoint presentation is shown on a big screen with pictures reflecting each retiree’s career. Each retiree selects someone to speak on their behalf when the presentations begin. Once dinner is finalized, the DPFFA Honor Guard provides a formal ceremony known as the “bell ceremony.” Honor guard members are escorted in by bagpiper and drummer and take their respective places on the stage. The ceremony honors the retiree’s service and recognizes their last alarm or bell. This is an emotional ceremony that also recognizes those who have perished in the line of duty serving their fellow man. At the conclusion of this ceremony each retiree is called to the stage and given a plaque reflecting that member’s years of dedicated service to the local and a certificate of thanks from the local. The chosen speaker then has the opportunity to speak on behalf of the retiree and the retiree has a moment to speak, if desired. Once each retiree has been recognized, one of our retirees offers a toast (Irish whiskey) to every firefighter in the room. The night is concluded with closing remarks from the union president and a closing prayer by the religious representative. Many socialize afterwards.
Whatever you chose to do for your retirees, please do something meaningful. As stated earlier in this article it will be the last opportunity to thank your firefighters for their selfless service to the department and the community they serve.
Billy W. Scearce, Jr. has more than 30 years of fire/EMS experience and has held various positions from firefighter to acting battalion chief. He served more than seven years as a Commonwealth of Virginia City of Danville (VA) Deputy Sheriff and has served as a union trustee for Local 2532 of the IAFF. He serves as a captain/acting battalion chief for the City of Danville Fire Department and is a battalion chief at Virginia International Raceway. He also was a member of Riverbend (VA) Volunteer Fire Department for 20 years, serving as firefighter/EMT and lieutenant. He has an associate’s degree in fire science administration (Danville Community College), bachelor’s degree in organizational management (Ashford University), and a master’s degree in public administration (Ashford University). Billy graduated from the NFA’s Executive Fire Officer Program in February of 2016 and is still active in the fire service.