The dispatcher's voice breaks the station's silence. She announces this is the final alarm for Lt. Wilson and congratulates him on 26 years of dedication at the fire department. The dispatcher wishes him success and relaxation during his retirement. As Lt. Wilson shakes the hands of his company officers and members, thoughts begin to race through his head: "How did 26 years fly by? What am I going to do now? What does the future hold for me?"
Sound familiar? Maybe some readers have experienced these thoughts, or perhaps have heard them from friends who retired from the fire service. Either way, the inevitable will happen to us all. Retirement will creep up on us, and the one question we should each be asking today is, "Will I be ready for the day?"
This article isn't about financial concerns surrounding the topic of retirement, though this is an important issue. No, this article considers the emotional aspects of retirement and how the lack of planning can affect you and your family.
I started collecting statistics on firefighter suicides in late 2010. It was in response to the many phone calls, emails and conversations from and with people I talked to who knew firefighters who had taken their lives. It was with this information I created Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) in 2011.
As of writing this article, I have received 216 reports of firefighters taking their own lives. Within that data, 64 of those were retired firefighters; I wonder how many have taken their lives that I don't know about.
Tradition shows us that after all our years of service, we're awarded some gift, maybe a party and a thank-you for all we've done. These are nice gestures at that time, but we need to prepare our firefighters at least a year before retiring to acclimate them into a lifestyle they abandoned long ago. Remember, this doesn't affect just career firefighters but paid-on-call (POC) and volunteer firefighters as well. Their years of dedication to their community, leaving their families when paged out and constant training are well documented.
Firefighters are usually classified as type-A personalities. We're action oriented, aggressive and love challenges. A high percentage of career firefighters have second jobs, and POC and volunteers hold down primary jobs as well as dedicating time to their departments.
So if I asked you what you thought retirement will be like, would you say, travel, golf, fishing, doing more with my family? Sound familiar? There may be a few other activities on this list, but I believe you get my point.
Yet, for us active types, the reality of retirement can be seen in this example: You're planning a two-week trip to Mexico; you brag how you're going to do nothing but lay on the beach and relax. So what do you think you'll be doing on about the third or fourth day? I know I would be pacing the hotel room, telling my wife I need to go out and do something!
Welcome to retirement if you haven't planned for it.
I can't mention all my recommendations in this article, but here are a few things both the fire service and individuals can do:
- About a year before retirement, start to really search for what new career may interest you. Many firefighters have hobbies they want to develop into small businesses.
- Start looking into going back to school—maybe a technical school that fits your interest. You can take a self-assessment at your local community college or library that may give you some direction and information on how to get there.
- Visit a business or a small company that's run by a self-employed owner and pick their brains for hints about how to succeed when you retire.
- Consider career counselors who have dedicated their professional lives to helping others transition from one career to another.
- Work within your fire department to develop its own retirement committee to help members once their retirement date is established. Visit a local career counselor for ideas on how to create your committee.
These are just a few ideas to get you started.
I would recommend seeing a marriage counselor if you're married or have been living with a partner for several years. The adjustment period can be very detrimental to relationships when firefighters end their careers. You might need to seek counseling on a personal basis to discuss how the job might have affected your life, such as the lifestyle, PTSD, addictions, depression or other mental health issues, and the fact of being a firefighter has ended.
Retirement can be a difficult transition, but with preparation, counseling and involving your family, you'll be opening the door to another exciting period in your life. Enjoy your history as a firefighter, but don't live in it.
Jeff Dill is an assistant chief for Palatine Rural Fire Protection District in Inverness, Ill. He is the founder of Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, a licensed counselor and a member of the IAFC's Safety, Health & Survival Section.