There Is No Such Thing as an Ex- Firefighter! Reaching Out to Retirees

By Patrick J. Kenny

After having been a part of the “Tampa 2” Summit in the spring of 2014 that looked at the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) 16 Life Safety Initiatives (LSIs), I was struck by one initiative in particular. LSI #13 states: “All firefighters and their families must have access to counseling and psychological support.” I thought: Who exactly are our firefighters? and What do we do to “support” the families? These are not trick questions.

The term “firefighter” in this article includes members of career, combination, and volunteer organizations whether EMS providers or nonEMS providers. Firefighters are the men and women who report for duty or answer the pager in our department who protect our communities. But, this definition is too limited.

How do we go about expanding that concept? For instance, if you have had the privilege of knowing someone who served in the Marine Corps and introduced that person as an “ex-Marine,” that Marine, and Marines universally, would react in a manner that would make it clear that there is no such thing as an ex-Marine. Once Marines take that oath to protect our country, it binds them for life. They may not be on active duty anymore, and they will acknowledge as much, but they will be Marines until the day they die.

Figure1. Conditions Necessary for Suicide

This concept is also relevant to the fire service. I am greatly concerned about a population in the fire service who seems to be forgotten when we define “firefighter.” I am talking about our retirees. We forget to include in our definition of firefighter retirees-the groups who came before us and who built our departments to what they are today. Whether a firefighter is volunteer, combination, or career, once a firefighter accepts this vocation and takes the oath to be a firefighter and experiences the pride that goes with it, these things never leave the firefighter.

An “Ex-Firefighter”?

The problem, as I see it, comes into play when you leave “active duty” and retire whether that decision is driven by years of service, a family situation, or both. Once you make that declaration and walk out of your firehouse for the last time, are you an “ex-firefighter”?

I reflect on the movie Field of Dreams in which Burt Lancaster plays the part of an elderly man whose vocation is a medical doctor, “Moonlight” Graham. Dr. Graham has the chance in the afterlife to play baseball against his heroes. Yet, when a young girl watching the game in which he is playing, that game he has dreamed of, begins to choke, he chooses to cross the foul line from the afterlife to save the girl. That decision returns him to his elderly status and his role as a doctor. The good news is that he saves the little girl. The bad news is he can’t go back, thus he traded what was so important to him for the greater good. After all, once a doctor, always a doctor!

So I will ask the question again, in that context: Once you retire from active duty, are you an “ex-firefighter”? Like heck you are! We share that same forever mantra with Dr. Graham and our Marine heroes. If you see someone fall on the ice in a parking lot, I’ll bet you that that “kind old person” who came to help probably is a retired firefighter.

Retirees do not consider the back surgery they had to repair issues from years of wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus or carrying a stretcher when responding to the person in distress. Years of training and dedication to others just reengage, and off the retirees go to help with no regard for their well-being. In some cases, the “helper” probably needs the assistance more than the person who fell; but at that moment, the retiree is 25 years old and healthy again; someone is in distress; and, “By God, that’s my job!”

Yet, it has been my experience that departments across our nation do not make enough of an effort to keep those valued members in touch. Yes, when you retire, there is the obligatory cake and coffee, or maybe even a formal retirement party, which many retirees view more as a wake than a celebration. Frankly, sometimes there isn’t even that. What I believe in reality is a status of “inactive” becomes instead a status of “ignored” or “irrelevant.” Have you ever heard one of your retirees respond when asked, “Why don’t you stop in for a cup of coffee?” with, “I don’t belong here anymore”?

Did we, those of us on active duty from the chief all the way down to the newest member who may not know half of the retirees, consciously set out to make the retirees feel that way? In almost all cases, probably not. However, the flip side of that question is, Did we do anything to address that very real feeling of no longer belonging that I have heard over and over from retirees whether career, combination, or volunteer?

Why “Ex” Can Be “High Risk”

There are many reasons we need to continue to look on retired firefighters as firefighters. One reason is so they and their families can continue to be included in the fire service’s efforts to meet the intent of LSI #13: “Firefighters and their families must have access to counseling and psychological support.”

Other reasons retirees should remain a part of your department include, but are not limited to, the following: to preserve the history of your department; pass on valuable lessons; sustain memories of major incidents; memorialize institutional knowledge; and, most importantly, give something back to those who gave so much before you even took your oath. You need to send a clear message that there is no “ex” in their retiree title.

Mental health and the realities of its impact on firefighters and their families have been getting much needed exposure recently. The potential exposure to traumatic events both acute and cumulative is very real. The research provided by the NFFF and many other studies show that just talking to someone, as in the case of peer support programs (not even necessarily a therapist), can reduce the impact of an event.

Our retired population is at a heightened risk. If the “talk it out” theory is helpful in dealing with the realities of this vocation, what happens when you leave the “support” group many of us have had, sometimes for decades? The tough memories don’t go away, but the support does. When you retire, do the issues go away? Is the “go” switch turned off? The problem is that many retirees didn’t even talk about the issues when they were “active” firefighters. It was taboo. Yet, those challenges cannot be locked behind closed doors forever. Sometimes it’s when things slow down that the memories break out with little or no warning. Where is the support for our retirees when that happens?

Conditions Necessary for Suicide

I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Thomas Joiner, a professor at Florida State University, speak at an NFFF symposium on behavioral health a couple of years ago. He wrote the book Why People Die by Suicide. We were required to read the book before attending the symposium. That assignment was a gift to me both personally, having lost a son to suicide, and professionally to validate and raise my awareness of the vulnerability of our retirees.

Dr. Joiner identified three conditions that need to be present when an individual is at great risk from suicide.

  • “Thwarted belongingness.” If your identity in life were tied solely or even very heavily to the fire service, as it is for many firefighters, once separated from that identify through retirement, you may have the perception that you do not belong to your former department anymore. After all, you aren’t a firefighter anymore! It sounds to me like, “I don’t belong here anymore.”
  • “Perceived burdensomeness.” The facts that with few exceptions we don’t usually get healthier as we age and that most retirees have given decades of dedicated service make it conceivable that retirees can see themselves as a burden to others. The retired firefighters see themselves as burdens to their former organization, and, more importantly, burdens to their family and friends if they are viewed as “hang-arounds.”

It is quite common for survivors to find in a suicide note left by a loved one something to the effect of, “You will be better off without me.” I believe that having been part of the proudest helping profession in the world where you have been on the giving end for so many years, it can be devastating to make the transition that you now need help, especially without any psychological support.

  • “Capability.” This capability refers to being able to value your life enough so you literally go against the most basic human instinct of self-preservation. Dr. Joiner theorizes that firefighters have already learned that “capability” by being willing to risk their lives for others. At that moment when we put our life on hold and do not see it as more valuable than or even equal to that of the complete stranger we seek to rescue, we have mastered that “capability.” The sacrificing of our life is a heroic act for sure when we are on “active duty,” but that noble trait for a retired firefighter can become a condition that puts the firefighter at high risk for suicide. Once you perceive your life as lacking in value, you are in peril.

Applying Dr. Joiner’s conditions to firefighter retirees, what do we see?

  • The retiree has lost a proud identity as a firefighter (and maybe also as a military veteran), which intensifies the feeling of no longer belonging.
  • The retiree is getting older and has health issues (physically, mentally, or both) and has to rely on others for help rather than being the help provider. This transition may come later in life or, in some cases, may be present at the time of retirement, such as when a firefighter retires as the result of a physical or mental disability.
  • As noted, the retiree already has the “capability” to put his life secondary to others’ lives and thus believes that the world would be better off without him.

These conditions constitute Dr. Joiner’s “perfect storm,” indicating that our retirees are at risk of mental health challenges at a minimum and suicide at the extreme.

Instilling a Sense of Belonging

Dr. Joiner’s theory states that ALL three conditions must be present for suicide to occur. If we agree that our retirees have the “capability” trait inherently and we can’t reverse the aging process that often leads to a greater dependence on others, it becomes apparent that we can intervene only in relation to “thwarted belongingness.” I don’t see the answer as very complicated!

We should work toward making our retirees feel “connected,” as if they still belong to our organization. What does your department do to keep your retirees involved? Don’t give me the excuses “They moved away,” “We can’t find them,” or “It’s not in the budget.” With today’s multiple communication media and social media, we can certainly find most of them and reach out to them. We have to make a conscious effort. It should not fall into the “We will get around to it sometime” category.

What can we offer the retirees when we find them? Invite them to all events-open houses, promotions, academy graduations, social outings-all department activities are fair game even if they reside out of state. The worst outcome of that outreach is that they do not come. However, they surely won’t be there if they are not invited. “If you build it, they will come” applies to the fire service as it did to the ball field in the movie mentioned above.

Establish events dedicated to retirees, such as monthly retiree breakfasts, department reunions every two years, or annual holiday breakfasts. Perhaps designate a retiree leader to help plan these events.

Ensure that the retirees are intermingled with your active crews at these events so they feel part of the group. Whether on a seating chart or when scheduling vehicles in a parade, re-engage the veterans so they feel part of the “active firefighter” ranks again.

Send retirees your annual report. Highlight one retiree in each report; in the profiles, include what the retirees did while in your department and what they are doing in retirement. Set up a network that designates you as the clearinghouse for retirees’ contact information so they can communicate as the “retiree division” relative to items such as anniversaries, shared vacations, and family losses.

Firefighters of all ages like memorabilia. How about providing a special patch, pin, polo, sweatshirt, or challenge coin unique to retirees that shows they are still considered members of your fire department family? Set up a “video booth” where each retiree can tell a story about his career. I have seen some of those videos; they are priceless!

Don’t forget the retirees’ families. How can we educate them as to what their loved ones signed up for and the types of challenges retirement may pose? Do they know what resources your department has available for the retiree and the family (i.e., chaplain, employee assistance plan, peer support, for example)? Perhaps you can schedule a family breakfast followed by a short program that outlines these services. If applicable, invite the significant others too.

I challenge you to take a hard look at what your department does to keep your retirees engaged. Every department, I believe, can implement some degree of retiree program. Those men and women were and still are a valuable resource to your department and need to be treated as such. We all took an oath to serve and protect. Our retirees are part of that oath and fall under that mission. They deserve that respect. It is our job to establish and maintain that “inactive duty, ready to be recalled” division in our organizations as part of our mission. After all, there is no such thing as “ex-firefighters,” only men and women waiting to be reactivated.

Endnote

Joiner, Thomas. (2005) Why People Die by Suicide, Harvard University Press.

PATRICK J. KENNY, a member of the fire service for more than 32 years, is chief and the director of fire and EMS for the village of Western Springs, Illinois. He serves as a member of the Illinois Fire Chief’s Promotional Assessment Board and is a past president of the Illinois Fire Chief’s Association. He recently received the highest certification in the state of Illinois for a chief officer and is a recipient of the Chief Officer Designation by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He has had articles published in the areas of leadership, fire safety, mental health, and fire code challenges.

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