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How old is too old in the fire service?

The issue of age isn’t a simple problem to solve, particularly in the volunteer fire service that’s struggling for members

Portrait of a fireman

When the career side sees budget cuts, we will give it our all to make up the difference. When the volunteer side is in trouble, we sometimes end up with elderly and juvenile firefighters as the response.

Photo/Getty Images

I recently received these warm and fuzzy emails following the deaths of older firefighters:

“C’mon chief, when are we gonna learn? We’re killing our own by allowing these senior members respond to incidents. I think that the NFPA can set the precedent and MANDATE a retirement age for ALL firefighters, both career and volunteer. We worry about cancer killing us, but what about old age? Anyone?”

And this one:

“How old was this brother of ours? Past Chief, 32 years on the job. When is someone going to do something about US? We’re our own worst enemy! We’re killing our most experienced members by putting them at risk and in danger by allowing them to participate in ACTIVE FIRE SUPPRESSION ACTIVITIES. There MUST be a mandatory retirement age for ALL firefighters. PERIOD. Just how many senior members have we lost in the past year alone? One is too many. I’m calling for the NFPA to set forth a mandate to propose a ruling on this! If they can tell us it’s not safe to wear our damn helmets while responding on a call, they can certainly do THIS to save our brain trusts. These senior firefighters are our educators for our younger members. They belong in the classrooms, NOT on the fireground!”

So, how old is too old for the fire service?

How many times have we heard (or said), “This is a young person’s job”? While this issue primarily applies to the volunteer fire service, there are communities with career members that have no age limit. But is age really the issue?

Stats don’t lie

According to the NFPA, 50% of American firefighters are between 30 and 49 years old, 17% are 50-59, and 10% are 60 and over. Of course, age is a factor, but it isn’t the only factor. For example, would you rather work with a fit firefighter (one who passed a physical) who is 60 years old, or would you rather work with an obese firefighter who is 30 years old? I’ll take the 60+-year-old every time. HOWEVER, there are far more overweight young firefighters than there are fit older firefighters. It’s just the reality of our profession.

What does science tell us?

Being a very active member of AARP, I read their materials. According to AARP, by the time you reach your 50s, your strength, balance and endurance are already beginning to wane, much earlier than previously thought. Researchers with Duke University’s School of Medicine suggest that physical decline begins in the 50s and worsens as we age, especially for those who don’t exercise. Specifically, both men and women in their 50s began saw declining ability to stand on one leg and rise from a chair. Declines became more evident in the 60s and 70s. More physical activity was associated with less physical decline, especially in ages 60 to 79.

The findings suggest that functional tests should be conducted long before people reach their 70s and 80s, said co-author Miriam Morey, with Duke’s Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development. By waiting too long, doctors miss “40 years of opportunities to remedy problems.”

So why not fix it?

On the career side, usually, labor and labor laws will manage this issue with mandatory physicals and retirement ages. Not always, but that is the norm. On the volunteer side, however, there aren’t always rules or laws on this issue. Some states DO have mandatory physicals for volunteers, and some states have defined interior vs. exterior volunteer firefighters. Here’s one job description as an example:

Exterior volunteer firefighter: Performs limited firefighting duties such as drives fire apparatus, deploys & connects hoses, raises ladders, uses other firefighting techniques such as ventilating burning buildings from outside, rescuing trapped occupants of a motor vehicle accident, sets up scene lighting, performs rehab operations, assists interior firefighters with air bottle changes and filling of air bottles, assists incident commanders with scene safety, personnel accountability and communications, and responds and performs emergency medical assistance to the level of certified training.

You’ll see that there are strenuous duties assigned even to their exterior volunteers – duties that could bring on medical or traumatic injuries. The fact is that every aspect of what we do is strenuous. Even just tones awakening us from a deep sleep has proven to impact us negatively.

The solutions appear to be simple, but the reality in the volunteer fire service is not that simple. After decades of service, one would think that their services are no longer needed, but as we see with volunteer fire departments struggling to provide service, 70-year-old Mike might be your only daytime driver. I didn’t say you have to like it, but that’s the way it is. Without Mike and a handful of 17-year-old kids leaving high school when their pagers go off, there would be no local response. High risk? Predictable? Absolutely – for both the young and the old. Is that the way it should be? No. But we don’t live in a perfect world.

Predictable may not always be preventable

Clearly, a 70+-year-old trained driver creates a higher medical risk than a 30-year-old trained driver. The proof is simply due to age. But eliminate that volunteer, and that fire department may be out of business. Should a fire department be reliant upon one old member who has been volunteering for 40 years? They shouldn’t be, but they are!

Understand that throughout North America, some suburban and most rural areas are “protected” by the above model – some retired members who are “around” if there is a run and staffing from the local schools where young firefighters can respond. And it works … until it doesn’t. It is a known risk that communities, departments and the members themselves are willing to accept. As one senior volunteer firefighter said to me when discussing this issue: “I am around, I can help out as our company needs help; besides, the local community is not willing to give us the tax funds to hire career folks, so we do what we can.”

So, while it is predictable, and eventually something might go terribly wrong with an engine company having a 70+-year-old driver and the rig filled with high school student firefighters, the fact is that for the most part, the public will get the service they called for, or at least the service they assumed will respond.

Our own worst enemy

We never say no. When the career side sees budget cuts, we will give it our all to make up the difference. When the volunteer side is in trouble, we sometimes end up with elderly and juvenile firefighters as the response.

WHY?

Because we know that what we do matters. We have been there/done that, so no matter the cuts and related issues, we understand that when someone needs help, we will give it our all. We give it our best even though we know it can be done better, even though we are at even greater risk.

On the other hand, there is also an element of selfishness and/or false pride in the mix. “We are volunteers and will always be volunteers no matter what! That statement often misses a part two that sounds something like “regardless of whether or not the public suffers.” Sounds brutal? Yeah, it sounds brutal – and it is brutal – but we do not always do what’s best for the public. And we know it.

Many years ago, one of our volunteer chiefs threatened me when I was proposing a large budget item that included hiring dozens of county career firefighters – firefighters that the stats proved were needed, as the 20+ volunteer fire rescue companies in our county were simply failing to respond. The threat sounded like this:

“Billy, if you propose hiring all those paid firefighters, we are going to surround the courthouse with all of our apparatus that day at noon in protest” to which I responded, “If you can staff all your apparatus next week at noon to protest my actions, do it every day, around the clock, and I won’t have to hire any career firefighters.”

While my friend was self-focused, the fact is that if the service can be done better/faster and the public is willing to pay, we owe it to the public to provide what the local economy will support. On the other hand, if the local community is not willing to fund better service, then they will get what can be afforded – and in many communities, that’s the old-timer with high school kids responding from wherever they are when the tones go off. It’s a crapshoot that the public, tossing the dice, doesn’t always understand until it’s after the emergency.

What’s the solution?

It is probably time that the NFPA take another look at this issue of age, where it is legal and appropriate. Currently, they have excellent, applicable standards that cover everything but age, such as physical fitness, and if those standards would just be applied, with physicals, no tobacco use, things like that would be part of the equation and age wouldn’t be as applicable as we currently think.

There is also a local, personal factor where members of many decades want to stay involved. It is a love for the job of belonging. As my email buddies above suggested, there are roles in volunteer departments for people to serve but in a lower-risk manner. Consider the value of that senior member at the command post as an aide/advisor. How about managing accountability? And certainly as qualified, helping mentor newer members.

A pretty simple equation

We must also be honest with the community we serve – and ourselves. Let the community know what they will actually get (use real stats) when they dial 911 (day, night, weekends; who, how long, etc.) and the reasons for that response. Good, bad or whatever. If they don’t like it, they should be encouraged to join. If they don’t have the time or desire, then raise taxes. If they don’t like that, then we are running out of options, and they will get what they support. Pretty simple equation.

Regardless of what is done, and how we feel emotionally about this issue, every firefighter who actively responds to emergencies should have an annual firefighter physical (NFPA) and related screenings (cancer, etc.) to evaluate their health and ability to do the job. The cost of physicals should be considered as important as fuel for the apparatus. It is non-negotiable. And that’s probably a good start to the worries of age.

Weigh in

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Chief Billy Goldfeder, EFO, a firefighter since 1973, serves as deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) Fire Department. He also serves as Lexipol’s senior fire advisor and is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Goldfeder is a member of the Board of Directors for several organizations: the IAFC, the September 11th Families Association and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). He also provides expert review assistance to the CDC NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. Goldfeder is the recipient of numerous operational and administrative awards, appointments and recognitions. He has served on several NFPA and IAFC committees, has authored numerous articles and books, and presented several sessions at industry events. Chief Goldfeder co-hosts the website www.FireFighterCloseCalls.com.
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