On May 28th of this year, I entered what will be my last year in the fire service. It has been the greatest honor to serve others in their time of need, and I openly embrace my pending retirement with a balanced mind, body, and spirit. Several firefighters on my department will retire before me over the next year, and this got me thinking about what it will be like to move beyond the lights and sirens.
There are different types of relationships we encounter over a lifetime: spousal, familial, parental, etc. The one that we do not often examine is the relationship we have with our chosen career as a first responder. This partnership is also filled with highs and lows, victories and defeats, peace, and harmony as any marriage that I know. Over the course of 20 + years, we cultivate a bond, and sometimes fight with our “second family”. For many first responders, this is another chapter (in their book of life) as they move on to other pursuits. For others, this world is all they know and the thought of life beyond that, can riddle them with anxiety. What are they to do?
As Matt Olson once said “The Fire Service has the ability to really get into your blood, and it’s something that if we are not careful, is easy to make firefighter our identity. So, when people leave this career, it can be challenging.” ILFFPS Retiree Liaison Chuck Wehrli echoed this sentiment when he said “Last year alone out of 94 suicides across the country for firefighters and medics, 15% were retirees, and within weeks of retirement had committed suicide. When people are not prepared to retire, it can be very difficult if they do not have support. If you are having issues with retirement as far as medical, not prepared to do anything any more but sit around the house – reach out to the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support. Give us your feedback, and let’s try to make it better for the next generation of people.” The begs the question, what can we do to gracefully cross the bridge from active duty into retirement?
One of the requirements of the initial peer support training is to develop your own personal wellness plan that has a two-fold purpose. First, it gives us direction or a game plan if you will, should life “on the job” become personally overwhelming. Second, it provides a guide for us to use when we meet with a peer in need to assist them in creating his/her own wellness initiative. This plan should be revised often to include goals for life after service. Let’s look at a couple of ways to help us cross that bridge. I encourage our readers to respond to this post and grow this list.
One honorable way to stay connected to the service is to become a member of ILFFPS and assist the next generation of first responders manage what can be a physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging career path. A retiree has at a minimum 20 years’ worth of wisdom that can be shared with younger peers whose world has become overwhelming. It is most gratifying to sit across from a brother or sister in need and watch his/her face light up with hope. Give Chuck or anyone of our peer leaders a call to get started.
Another way to bow out gracefully is to be the best mentor you can to the younger first responders (in the time you have left) to ensure the world you leave behind is in capable hands. Don’t be surprised if your phone rings often, and it is the young charges seeking your advice when the going gets tough. I am working earnestly to express my gratitude (to the fire service) by developing a strong wellness program that includes physical, mental, and emotional resiliency components. It is the least I can do as I part ways with the friendship I cultivated nearly 25 years ago.
As for me, I will remain actively involved with ILFFPS in my current role, as well as an instructor for the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. I also own a startup health coaching and wellness education business that I hope will keep me busy long after I hang up my gear for the final time.
A couple of weeks ago I chose The Eagles It’s Your World Now as my retirement song. On the surface it is about the relationship between a couple. To me, however, it best exemplifies the relationship I had with my friend- the fire service. This song also offers words of advice to those whom I leave behind. Glenn Fry tells this story far better than I could ever describe in writing. I hope you enjoy this little gem. Until next time –
Be well and stay safe,