A Primer on Fire Service Retirement

Most of us who have served our communities look forward to a long, enriching retirement, one in which we reap the rewards for the many hours devoted to “giving back.” Often, this transition to “the good life” is much more difficult than the challenges we endured throughout our careers. Our long road to retirement has been full of successes, opportunities, and lessons learned. We are part of a group that values service over self. Our on-the-job stressors were many and, with retirement, we expect these stressors to go away. However, the experience of many (if not most) long-tenured fire service retirees in retirement is full of a different mix of challenges.

While we were employed, we were prepared for and expected these work stressors and developed coping mechanisms to diminish their impact. What we didn’t foresee was the emotional and mental strain that retirement would have on us.

 

A Life-Changing Event

Retiring from the fire service is a huge life-changing event. There isn’t a generally recognized gauge or barometer of when we decide to end our fire service career. Most have planned for this moment, counting the days until they can leave. Some may retire voluntarily, whereas others may be forced to by conditions beyond their control—e.g., staff reductions, disciplinary procedures, or age caps. Still others are “encouraged” to take a hiatus from the fire service. In all cases, our preparation for retirement is generally the same. We pay close attention to the financial planning side of the equation but overlook the emotional and mental toll that will impact us. Our finances are appropriate for our postretirement goals; we have prudently saved and invested for our day in the sun. We’ve sought financial planning guidance with a goal of continuing our chosen lifestyle, acquiring the appropriate level of finances while we worked to ensure a happy life in retirement. Assuming that the retiree has adequately planned for financial needs into retirement, the key to a healthy reaction to retirement lies with planning for the inevitable emotional and physical impacts. Retirees who haven’t planned for the emotional side of retirement often have difficulties with their transition to their “new normal.”

Planning Your Retirement

Retiring from the fire service and leaving the “family” of so many years require that you carefully plan for life beyond the firehouse. Many (if not most) who retire from the service initially enjoy a honeymoon period of joy, having more time to spend with family, pursue hobbies, or travel. Unfortunately, unless you have planned for the long term, you will have a sudden, rude awakening. You can’t spend every waking moment with the grandchildren or on the golf course.

Adjusting to Retirement

Jada Hudson, MS, LPC, a clinical consultant for retiree peer support services of the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support (ILFFPS) group, has found the adjustment to retired life is often problematic for many retirees. She reports that retiring from the fire service introduces new emotional, mental health, physical, and relationship dynamics to the individuals and their families. She notes that “because newly retired firefighters are no longer wrapped up in the daily business of firehouse life, they often find themselves searching for belonging and discover that years of commitment to the fire service has left them feeling somewhat disconnected from family life and longing for a renewed sense of purpose and excitement.”1 Most retirees, she explains, are not prepared for the lack of a familiar routine and structure, the loss of identity and accomplishment, and being separated from a “like” group. This quick disconnect from the fire service and the surfacing of new emotions can lead many retirees into covert depression. A high percentage of diagnosed depression in retirees has been noted. According to a recent report released by the Institute of Economic Affairs, after an initial boost in health, retirement increases the risk of clinical depression by 40 percent.2

Other studies looking at the impact on the mental health of retirees support Hudson’s findings. A 2007 study by David Dhaval, et al. found, “Complete retirement leads to a 5-16 percent increase in difficulties associated with mobility and daily activities, a 5-6 percent increase in illness conditions, and a 6-9 percent decline in mental health over an average post-retirement period of six years.”3

Behaviors following retirement may be healthy, such as a newfound sense of self, freedom of expression, and the excitement of new activities. However, since men typically don’t share their feelings and emotions as readily as women, unhealthy coping behaviors that impact the well-being of the individual may surface. Unhealthy behaviors often stem from a loss of belonging, purpose, and identity; the retiree experiences a feeling of loneliness, anxiety, restlessness, and irritability. Social engagements may decrease; the retiree may withdraw from formerly pleasant relationships. If not addressed, these behaviors may lead to unhealthy reactions such as compulsive and obsessive behaviors, alcohol or drug abuse, domestic violence, affairs, addiction to pornography, or other increasingly risky behaviors.

Keys to a Healthy Retirement

There are several keys to a healthy and meaningful retirement. Research points to three important voids the retiree must fill to grow and experience a fruitful retirement. Jeff Dill, founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, reports that retirees find it difficult to fill the gaps of a loss of belonging, identity, and purpose created on retirement, which are common among virtually all senior tenured fire service members as they transition through retirement.4 Filling these gaps with fulfilling activity greatly improves the retiree’s chances of avoiding emotional and mental health issues.

The fire service offers many advantages over other occupations. Intrinsic values include discovering a passion for giving back and making a difference. We take immense pride in making Mrs. Smith’s worst day better, making a great “stop,” or giving an infant another chance at life. Nothing can match the sense of accomplishment we get when we develop this passion for making a difference. We foster a keen sense of belonging to a cohesive group that shares common beliefs, values, experiences, cultural norms, and expectations. These principles and standards of behavior solidify the comraderie that exists in fire service teams.

Our identification as a firefighter is a strong motivator in our fire service culture; for example, we address each other as “Brother” and “Sister.” This bond is broadly recognized and accepted to show that we belong to a select group. The practice of adopting a department or station mascot, often portraying the special nature of our work, unites and identifies us. Our apparatus and uniforms are adorned with images of our cultural identity. Our keen sense of identity also plays into the social realm of importance, especially when considering the views and expectations our society has of the American firefighter. We believe so strongly in this societal identification that we often become overaggressive in our actions so as not to disappoint.

Forming a New Identity

In retirement, forming a new identity is important. One strategy to help shape this new identity is to consider what traits or attitudes were fulfilling as a firefighter, those intrinsic behaviors and actions that created a fondness for the fire service. For example, many firefighters find satisfaction in helping others achieve their goals and making a difference, giving back. In retirement, these traits of benevolence, compassion, and resourcefulness can be applied to create the new identity. Consider volunteer work with disadvantaged youth, starting a nonprofit dedicated to adaptive sports, or coaching for a sports team.

As professionals, our work became our life and going to work consumed us. Many retirees find that replacing this structure, substance, and routine is difficult. Fire departments operate by many of the same management principles as our military and police service. All depend on a hierarchical command structure, which is authoritative and autocratic in nature. The reporting structure and chain-of-command are generally strictly enforced, with clearly defined roles. Supervisors regularly practice autocratic authority over those they lead. Giving up formal authority and leaving the tightly structured organizational style that most fire departments favor may lead to adjustment issues following retirement.

The reality of retirement begins to hit home when we hang up our turnout gear for the last time. The importance of our identity as a firefighter that was a powerful motivator throughout our careers begins to fade as we transition to retirement. When you’ve spent more than 40-plus hours per week working, it’s natural to relate to your business as your identity. In the fire business, this on-the-job time is generally spent with other like-minded individuals, all striving for the same payback—making a difference. Being recognized as belonging to a very select group is what defines us. Group identification often lies at the heart of our identity. Choosing how you spend your time will influence your transition to a new identity. For example, if you volunteer your time as an individual, you may find it difficult to be satisfied not working in a group or a team atmosphere. However, if you do volunteer work with a group of like-minded people who share the same values, work ethic, and mission, you may more easily create your new identity. Though you never truly lose this identity, you need to move on in retirement and establish an equally rewarding distinctiveness. This is important for your mental and emotional well-being.

The fire service offers a true sense of purpose, shared and individual. Having purpose in a mission and belonging and contributing to something greater than self fulfill our need for personal accomplishment. Having life goals that continue into retirement is more important than the nature of those goals when it comes to a successful transition. Preretirement planning should begin at least five years before leaving. This allows the prospective retiree to contemplate life goals and apply the skills, knowledge, and learning accumulated over his career. This cushion of time is also vital to identify a common missing link in retirement, that of making a difference. Finding purpose in retirement often means applying learning accumulated over a career to a new, untested interest, hobby, or other activity. It’s vital that preretirement planning include a consideration of what will now consume the “free” time in the retiree’s life. Starting to explore new hobbies, seeking volunteer opportunities, documenting your career (writing), or some other interest can’t begin soon enough.

It is often difficult to adopt a new passion and purpose. Uncovering what is meaningful and energizing and provides a sense of accomplishment is not easy. Finding a new passion may require a move away from those comfortable activities that provided a sense of meaning when you were working. Finding value-added activities may also necessitate establishing a new circle of friends and exploring and experimenting with different interests. Discovering a new purpose takes time, but it will be well worth the effort.

Few professions can offer the comraderie that exists within the fire service. This socialization serves as a primary motivator for many firefighters, especially when viewed within the context of the teamwork orientation of the profession. You must compensate for the loss of this interaction. Continuing friendships and associations is vital in retirement. (3) Reducing the degree of social interactions can isolate the individual and can negatively impact mental and physical health and result in depression.

Adjustment Difficulty

Retirees who have held a senior-level rank such as chief often experience a much more difficult time adjusting to retirement. Research has shown “a noticeable relationship between the retirees’ rank at the time of retirement and their perceptions of their personal and social relationships. Of the officers, 54.8 percent reported that they felt a loss of friends with retirement, while only 27.6 percent of the lower ranks reported that feeling.”5 Some of the reasons for the difference in socialization at the top lie in the types of duties and work activities associated with leading and managing an organization. Senior-level management requires a high degree of independent decision making and critical thinking skills. Strategic level competency necessitates advanced communication and organizational skill sets as well as the ability to create social capital through networking with like-minded managers. When the need for these senior-level management skills evaporates, the networks generated through these work relationships also diminish, creating an emotional strain on the retiree. Seeking opportunities in which the retiree may apply these management and leadership competencies such as serving as a board member for a nonprofit or starting a business may minimize this loss.

Having a healthy retirement is often predicated on how time is spent. Fulfilling your psychological, social, and physical needs with “quality” activity is important. Issues of behavioral, physical, and mental health may be reduced when time is spent in mutually satisfying, healthy social interactions and active activity and pursuits. These interactions and newfound activities do not have to relate to the previous work (career); they only have to be satisfying to the individual.

Healthy Behaviors

Exerting control over life choices allows for a well-balanced mental framework for the retiree. Risky behaviors such as smoking and drinking, poor nutritional choices, drug and alcohol abuse, and other unhealthy reactions are lessened when the retiree chooses to engage in healthy social interactions, physical activity, and exercise.

Retirement can be a most exciting time. Here are a few tips for making a healthy transition from the tailboard to retirement.

  • Beginning in preretirement, form new relationships to remain socially connected. Make establishing new friendships through social groups, organizations, and other interests a priority. Diversifying or branching out of the familiar social group lessens the impact of losing work-based relationships that are often based on “need” and may not stand the test of time in terms of maintaining a continuing, close relationship with your former peers. Expand your social network to nonfire people. Many of these new contacts may be a result of your quest to rediscover yourself. Expanding your social network to include nonfire folks offers a new and different perspective. Planning for retirement must also include the family members. Retirement impacts the entire family. Involving family members in preretirement planning is crucial; retirement is also a family transition. The family provides support, insight, influence, closeness, and validation.
  • Discovering the new you in retirement takes well-thought-out planning. Beginning at least five years before retiring, begin looking for a new passion. Experiment, try new things, meet new people and groups, try a new hobby, or perhaps document your fire service experiences.
  • Grow and distinguish yourself in areas other than the fire service. Never lose your identity as a firefighter; however, you must move forward.
  • Use your newfound leisure time wisely. Continue with your physical fitness and active lifestyle choices. Studies have shown that overall physical and mental health is closely tied to the individual’s level of physical activity. Participating in a group exercise program may also expand your social network.
  • Maintaining your relationship with your former department offers the benefit of giving back; perhaps you should offer to provide continuing education to younger members or form a retiree social group with your fellow retirees. Remaining engaged is good for the mind and spirit.
  • What matters to you? Take the time to consider this question of what “pays you back.”
  • Begin a spiritual journey by integrating core spiritual knowledge, understanding, and beliefs into your lifestyle.

Retirement can be thrilling as well as challenging; rewarding; and, at times, disheartening. However, with planning, retirement can be fulfilling, fun, and full of new experiences. Enjoy the new opportunities that retirement offers.

References

1. Hudson, J. (June 2016). “Envisioning a Happy, Hopeful Retirement for Firefighters.” Illinois Firefighter Peer Support Newsletter, 20. https://bit.ly/2MWmaoO.

2. Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA, May 2013). “Retirement Causes a Major Decline in Physical and Mental Health.” Edited by Philip Booth. https://bit.ly/2WklygO.

3. Dhaval, D. et al. (2007). “The Effects of Retirement on Physical and Mental Health Outcomes.” Southern Economic Journal; 2007, 75(2): 497–523. https://bit.ly/2MMOvxG.

4. J. Dill, personal communication, November 10, 2017.

5. Bates, G. (October 1996). “Problems and Success Factors Inherent in Fire Service Retirement.” Executive Fire Officer Research Paper, Emmitsburg, MD: National Fire Academy.

Richard C. Kline, MS, EFO, CFO, is a 40-year fire service veteran. He retired from the Plymouth (MN) Fire Department after 23 years as chief. Kline is a frequent regional and national speaker, presenting on topics relating to command competencies and firefighter safety and health.

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