7 truths about fire service retirement
If you think it is hard to get into the fire service, wait until you try to get out; here are things you can do now to navigate that end-of-career change
Retirement from a life-long career can be a stressful event, regardless of the field. Research conducted in the military and law enforcement fields shows that retirement from a career in public safety can be more stressful than retirement from the civilian workforce.
Most firefighters I've ever had the pleasure to know have worked hard to get their first job. For many of us, that journey started in the volunteer ranks where we cut our teeth in the business.
Many others worked for two or three paid-on-call services or comboed a fire department job with an EMS gig before getting that one job that paid enough to make it their sole fire service endeavor.
Then once we were in, we immersed ourselves in the fire service culture. Our fellow firefighters became our second family; truth be known, we spent more time with that family than we did with our spouses and children.
When that retirement date comes and goes, it might seem like a divorce. Suddenly, that second family will be nowhere to be found. Getting into the fire service was easy compared to what it was like to leave it.
The only other careers that parallel that of the fire service – that strong sense of camaraderie, daily exposures to the unknown, and retirement at an early age – are found in law enforcement and the military.
Here are a few things that you can expect to experience once you hang up your turnout gear for the last time.
1. The loss of camaraderie is real
No matter how much you complained, you will miss your fire service family within a relatively short period of time. The term divorce is an apt description, despite it being an amiable one.
When you return to your former second home, you'll likely feel that you only have visitation rights, especially when you start seeing all those new faces.
2. The normal world is sometimes a crazy place
After years of living on a work cycle (mine was 24 hours on and 48 hours off), you'll find yourself needing to adjust to the world of the 40-hour work week, especially if you take on another job.
It was always much easier to shop, make doctor appointments, schedule vacations and the like when weekday hours were fully in play.
3. You'll never be busier than after you retire
Many of my fellow retirees have remarked how busy they became after they retired. Whether it was getting to all those projects that you never seemed to have time for or taking care of business for family and friends, your weekly schedule can fill up in a hurry.
4. What to wear becomes a confusing business
Choosing what to wear was a lot easier when it meant grabbing a clean uniform. Most people don't want to admit this, but wardrobe management is not necessarily in our DNA.
If you go into another field of work after retirement that requires real clothes — not one of the 100 polo shirts you accumulated over your fire service career — you can spend more than a few minutes each day finding matching clothes. Over time that equals hours, then days, then weeks that you spend doing nothing but thinking about what shirt to wear.
5. Finding work that's as fulfilling as firefighting is hard
A colleague, upon her retirement, said, "I'm not retiring, I'm 'refiring.'" For most of us, retiring in our mid-50s means finding a new career to help pay for those mortgages and college tuition bills that keep coming.
We're trained to be America's problem solvers, those people call when they don't know who to call. While we're on the job many firefighters and officer might gripe about some of the calls that we respond to, especially those that we felt didn't need the fire department.
But it's hard to beat the sense of satisfaction that comes after you and your crew handled the difficult fire or motor vehicle crash or complicated rescue. It's tough to find that kind of satisfaction working in the non-fire service world.
6. The higher you are, the harder it is
The higher the rank, the greater the sense of loss of friendships, prestige and self-esteem. In his Executive Fire Officer Program research paper "Problems and Success Factors Inherent in Fire Service Retirement," Gerald Bates wrote that he found a significant relationship between the participants' rank at the time of retirement and their perception of their personal and social relationships.
As we progress through the ranks, our circle of friends and colleagues shrinks. As officers, we learn to maintain that delicate balance between being friendly on the job with firefighters and junior officers and lapsing into friendships that can be detrimental to the good of the order. This is particularly true for men, as research has demonstrated that lasting male relationships are closely connected with their work.
Being a fire officer also means that you probably had some significant roles and responsibilities managing people, physical resources and budgets. After a career of shouldering those kinds of duties, it can be difficult to wake up one day as a team of one.
It can also be a difficult adjustment for your spouse and family as well; as my wife still tells me from time to time, "You're not the chief anymore." Reality check.
7. You'll become familiar with America's health care system
Your health and wellness moves up on your list of life's priorities. Nothing says you've moved into the second half of life's football game like retirement.
Those little nagging aches and pains take on a new significance, especially when you don't have that peer pressure to keep working through them. Think about how many retired firefighters finally get surgeries for those knee and shoulder problems that they've been putting off for years.
A successful retirement
In his research, Bates found that 95.7 percent of his survey's participants felt that their retirement was successful.
"The primary determinant of a successful and satisfying retirement appeared to be directly related to the level of planning that went into it," he wrote. "The most satisfied retirees tended to be those who planned for their retirement several years in advance."
As firefighters, we know the value of conducting pre-plans for target hazards in our district and there's great value in applying that strategy to your second career. Consider these retirement target hazards and pre-plan accordingly.
- Your personal characteristics.
- Your reasons for retirement.
- Your financial security.
- Your level of activity in retirement.
- Your social and personal relationships.
- Your physical and mental health.
Everyone's responses to the above will be different, but the one key for everyone is to plan for your retirement early in your career. Begin early in your firefighting career and focus on your career expectations, long-range financial plans, and the importance of developing a career and retirement plan in general.
This article, originally published on March 3, 2015, had been updated.