LIFE AFTER THE FIRE SERVICE

BY BRIAN A. CRAWFORD

All firefighters, regardless of rank or position, have a common thread in that they will retire some day. Yet, in contrast with the intensive and extensive training firefighters receive in other segments of their careers, often they receive virtually no preparation for retirement, perhaps except for the establishment of their pension. There is no training or preplanning for life after the fire service.

Some may believe that if an individual enjoyed a successful firefighter career that that same success would extend into the firefighter’s “golden years.” But that is not always the case. The truth is that many who have not adequately prepared themselves or their families for the economic, physiological, and psychological challenges that retirement brings may suffer through painstaking adjustments.1

Individuals contemplating retirement should address specific critical areas long before that final day of work arrives. They include the realization that they will be leaving a lifestyle, determining the age at which they would retire, assessing the impact on their family, establishing a financial plan, and considering health and wellness issues. Most of these factors are interdependent.

LEAVING A LIFESTYLE

Firefighters who serve in fire-line operations have a unique work schedule relative to the time they spend away from home and with coworkers. One of the reasons the brotherhood and sisterhood of firefighters has endured through time is the long, 24-hour schedule these individuals spend in each other’s company. Most firefighters will tell you that they spent far more hours with their coworkers than with family members. Even when not responding to emergency calls, spending time at the station, eating together, watching television, and sleeping in close quarters perpetuates a family atmosphere in which it is almost impossible for emotional ties not to develop.

Likewise, the nature of their work bonds these individuals from the time they respond to an emergency to the time they get back to the station. They depend on each another not only to get their job done but for the preservation of their lives. These critical, sometimes life-and-death moments, are repeated throughout a firefighter’s shift. Sharing these experiences with coworkers and knowing that their lives may one day be in their hands, and vice versa, forms a bond matched in only a few other professions, such as law enforcement and the military.

These long periods of time spent at work and away from home have physical and psychological effects. Most, fortunately, are positive. Building working relationships and friendships that enhance their position in the organization, formally and informally, also creates a better quality of life at home for most. However, separation from this environment through retirement, especially in view of the phenomenon of “self-identification” can have a substantial impact on the member’s future success and happiness. (1)

A (firefighter) self-identifier lives and breathes firefighting-if not the actual act, at least the lifestyle. It’s the individuals about whom we say, “They’ll never leave; they will die on this job.” To some this is a badge of honor: They dedicated their time and life to the fire service (public service). But, often this was done at the sacrifice of everything and everyone else. This position can be a recipe for disaster in the firefighter’s retirement. If firefighters do not know who they are when they take off their uniform and have no way of identifying the person in the mirror other than by the designation of captain or chief, they will struggle with retirement from the very day they walk out of the station doors for the last time.

Members who do not forge a solid life with family, friends, pastimes, and even occupational interests outside of the fire department will find it difficult to adjust to a slower and calmer lifestyle. Research has shown that this same sense of isolation and withdrawal applies to police officers as well.2 Losing their right to possess their symbols of authority-the uniform, badge, and weapon-on retirement represented losing many years of identity and fraternity and created a feeling of loss and a perceived decrease in social status. (2)

Over the span of a career, the firefighter lifestyle and organizational structure become part of the psyche of the member and his family. When it comes time to retire, many firefighters find it difficult to let go of what has become their surrogate family, second home, and sometimes first self-identifier. Firefighters silently contemplate what it would be like and who they would become when they no longer have to put on the uniform that provided their everyday structure of the job and gave them a strong feeling of self-control and sense of purpose.3 As many people do, members of the fire service define themselves by their careers. As a result, the decision of when and whether to retire from a lifetime of work is a very significant consideration because the potential retiree is trying to determine what to do with the last quarter to third of his life without the professional support system that carried him throughout his entire working career.4

RETIREMENT AGE

Another consideration that could possibly complicate the firefighter retirement issue is age. Most firefighters begin their careers at an early age and are eligible for retirement at an age earlier than the majority of the mainstream population. (4)

Some may think, the earlier the retirement, the better. This could be true if a plan is in place to fill the void left by leaving a full-time job. Think of it this way: When you are 65 and have not prepared for your retirement, you are faced with trying to decide what you would be doing for the next 15 to 20 years. When you retire at 45, however, and have not made any plans, you will be faced with the prospect of not knowing what to do for the next 35 to 40 years.

Because people are living longer, the retirement strategy or plan should emphasize after-retirement activities and, if you are not contemplating another career, how to finance those activities. Additionally, it has been estimated that of the 65 million Americans who will reach retirement age by the year 2020, most will live into their mid-80s. This earlier retirement age for firefighters should be a focal point of the retirement strategy. (4)

Firefighters eligible for retirement before the age of 50 should calculate in advance the right time to leave. Many firefighters plan to leave the job based on the guidelines of their pension and the historic time frame established by department personnel who have left before them. Whatever the time frame, there is a point when firefighters should feel comfortable to retire. Staying on beyond these informal department traditions could result in pressure to retire from younger members or the administration. In the fire service, some department members perceive that their promotions are being held hostage by members lingering past their time. This pressure can be subtle, such as having the AARP magazine delivered to the station in the potential retiree’s name, or it could be more obvious as in formally questioning the individual’s competencies on the job. As long as the member is a competent and contributing member of the department, he should retire when he is ready and not a moment before. Sometimes, a member may say he will be leaving on a certain date and then change his mind and stay on, sometimes indefinitely. This situation is annoying to the rank-and-file, and even administration, because plans may have been made at all levels to promote for the soon-to-be-vacant position and to add another recruit to the basic training class.

Planning for retirement, especially at a relatively young age, is critical for successful retirement. Firefighters will need the resources and activity agenda to combat the boredom that will come once the honeymoon of retirement has passed. Research has identified occupying time as a major predisposition for retirement fulfillment. (1)

A former district chief who retired at the age of 48 with 28 years of service was said to have proclaimed throughout his last years of service that his only plan when he left the department was to play golf every day. True to his word, he spent every day of the first three months of his retirement on the course. Then one night, he awoke in a cold sweat, and a feeling of doom consumed him. Why? Because he didn’t want to play golf the next day, and asked, “Now, what am I supposed to do?”

FAMILY CONSIDERATIONS

Retirement and its ramifications often affect family members at home as much or even more than the retiree. When contemplating retirement, most know that including their family, namely spouses or significant others, is essential for a successful and happy transition. A firefighter cannot expect to leave the 24-hour work schedule and a lifestyle of crisis intervention for the calm of a full-time home life without adjustments. Likewise, the family also has to make significant adjustments.

As a firefighter’s career begins to advance in years, families make significant adjustments to accommodate the unique work schedule and the long periods of separation. Spouses and other family members become accustomed to the time apart and often create career paths, social networks, and hobbies to fulfill their life expectations. On retirement, some firefighters expect these outside interests to take a back seat to their new role in the home. This attitude, if left unchecked, can result in frustration, anger, hostility, and resentment by all parties. (1)

Marital and family difficulties could accompany any retirement, regardless of profession, but because many firefighters’ family members have learned to adjust to the firefighter’s shift schedules, days off, on-call status, and the like, the lifestyle change brought on by retirement is often dramatic and forces the firefighters and their families to consider new methods of adaptation. (2) This is the reason family should be considered as a critical factor when planning for successful retirement. Firefighters who include family in their decision making appear to have the upper hand in making positive adjustments in home dynamics following retirement.

HEALTH AND WELLNESS

In a 2002 report in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Minna Karpansalo, et al, reported that jobs that encompassed heavy physical work are a predictor for early retirement. The authors noted that jobs that involve very physical work, like that of a firefighter, often lead to a disability retirement and an increased set of medical problems a retiree and his family may have to deal with in the future.5

Maintaining a healthful lifestyle and an exercise routine are essential in maintaining an everyday quality of life that is even more relevant in retirement. Although you cannot plan health per se, you can certainly have a plan in retirement for controlling risk factors that can contribute to diminished health in the future.

There are certain genetic predispositions over which individuals have little or no control, such as a family’s medical history of heart disease or diabetes. However, for those risk factors over which we have control, it is important to make healthful choices, such as maintaining a healthful diet, free of fried or fatty foods; limiting alcohol consumption; and not using tobacco products. By following these and other health-conscious guidelines, such as a consistent workout regimen, firefighters are likely to increase their chances for satisfaction in retirement.6

Many firefighters falsely believe that they will be able to maintain their physical fitness in their retirement without much effort. In reality, most will not keep up, at least with the same intensity, any current diet or workout regimen without dedication and commitment to it as part of their retirement plan.

Firefighters not actively involved in routine and productive activities following retirement will ultimately suffer more in the long run with health-related issues that could have been prevented. For firefighters, there are motivating factors for maintaining good physical condition during their careers, including the ability to execute strenuous and physically taxing tasks in the everyday performance of their duties. Retired firefighters no longer have this inspiration and must develop a new rationalization, such as quality-of-life issues such as being able to travel, play sports, and spend time with family and friends.

Retirement can also lead to mental health issues that include mild to severe depression, anger and sadness, social isolation, and feelings of worthlessness. If these conditions are severe or persist for an extended time, a licensed professional should be consulted. Mental problems can manifest themselves as physical problems and vice versa. Individuals who suffer mentally because of retirement also may have increased levels of stress and anxiety, which can exacerbate preexisting medical conditions and lead to hypertension, stroke, and heart disease.

PLANNING A STRATEGY

Not every firefighter will take the initiative in planning for retirement. It is equally evident that a great number of fire departments do not provide a formal program of support, planning, or counseling for their members about life after the fire service.

In his book Transitions of Retirement: Are You Ready for the Challenge? Jerry Smith lists the following advantages to having a retirement plan:

  • Knowing what you will be doing each day builds discipline.
  • Keeping your mind active combats boredom.
  • A plan of action provides direction.
  • Organizing your time will provide opportunity to achieve retirement goals.
  • It will promote relaxation and provide greater peace of mind.
  • It will improve your ability to focus on positive thoughts and reject negative feelings.
  • It will strengthen your self-image. (1)

Having a good financial map as part of an overall retirement plan is essential if firefighters are to maintain the quality of life to which they and their families have become accustomed. The fire department should promote and sanction professional financial planners to help with this function.

It is clear that departments need to provide a formal exit program for retiring members and that firefighters should take full advantage of the program.

ESTABLISHING OR ENHANCING PROGRAMS

The following recommendations are meant to provide direction for firefighters and departments in establishing new or enhancing current retirement programs that will help to make the years after retirement healthful, productive, and fulfilling.

1 Firefighters should be provided with retirement information and guidance early in their careers to allow for advanced planning in areas such as finances and health. This advanced planning should occur at multiple times during a firefighter’s career to allow for reevaluation of retirement goals and proper adjustments to reflect the dynamics of the member’s changing personal and family status.

2 Firefighters should be made aware of the prominent factors that can affect the success of their retirement and that these factors can be managed and mitigated in the member’s favor if planned for in advance. Those factors include finances, physical health, mental health, hobbies and avocations, and family (so members understand the new roles and the issue of self-identification).

3 Firefighters, supported by fire departments, should be encouraged to pursue interests such as other careers, hobbies, and educational opportunities outside of the fire and emergency services. This will allow members to have a more rounded self-identifier image instead of the image of being just a firefighter and nothing more.

4 Use a team approach when developing a comprehensive retirement strategy. Along with the firefighter, this team should include the fire department, family members (specifically spouses), professional financial planners, and physical and mental health care specialists.

5 Fire departments must create a level of comfort about retirement through organizationally sanctioned planning prior to employees’ leaving. The department likely will have more relaxed and productive members in their final years of service than members who are not comfortable with their impending separation from service.

6 Fire departments should view retirement planning as a benefit to tout to members and those thinking about a career in the fire service. It represents a we care attitude that leads the department and individual to share in planning for something that is as important as their career.

7 Firefighters’ families, spouses in particular, should be included in retirement planning because it will affect them and the dynamics of the family.

8 Fire departments should establish clear and formal policies about addressing the issue of retirement planning. These formal plans should include means and resources to deal with factors such as those presented in this article.

9 Fire departments should establish, promote, and support a support network of retired firefighters. This network can be a great tool in helping new retirees adjust to the difficulties of retirement while offering members the opportunity to fellowship with other former firefighters.

References

1. Smith, J. Transitions to Retirement: Are You Ready for the Challenge? (Arroyo Grande, Calif.: Inter Consulting Systems, 1994).

2. McCormick, M. Resolving Retirement Issues for Police Officers. 2003; retrieved from the Internet Aug. 29, 2005.

3. Swanson, C., L. Territo, and T. Taylor. Police administration structure, process, and behaviors. (N.J..: Prentice Hall. 2001).

4. Bates, G, “Satisfaction,” Fire Chief ; 2003, 47:8, 120-127.

5. Karpansalo, M., P. Manninen, T. Lakka, K. Jussi, R. Rauramaa, and J. Salonen, “Physical workload and risk of early retirement: Prospective population-based study among middle aged men,” J Occupational and Environmental Medicine; 2002, 44:10, 936.

6. Coleman, R., “Try some better ways to pack it in,” Fire Chief; 1995, 39:11, 38-40.

BRIAN A. CRAWFORD is an assistant chief and a 22-year veteran of the Shreveport (LA) Fire Department, currently serving as assistant to the fire chief. He is a National Fire Academy (NFA) resident instructor and a Maryland Fire Rescue Institute (MFRI) National Fire Service Staff and Command faculty member and serves on the IAFC’s Human Relations Committee. Crawford is an Executive Fire Officer graduate and an IAEM-certified emergency manager. He is a 2006 recipient of the USFA Harvard Fellowship and a graduate of the university’s Executive Leadership in State and Local Government program. He has a master of arts degree in industrial psychology, a bachelor of science degree in organizational management, and an associate’s degree in paramedics.

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