From Hire to Retire: The retirement rollercoaster
I have had the extreme privilege to write for Canadian Firefighter magazine for over a decade now. My column “Between Alarms” brought me so much joy and satisfaction, but now it is time for a change. This new column will now be called “From Hire to Retire” and focus on career development, leadership, and nuggets on living a healthy life and career into retirement. I hope this new theme brings value to those pursuing the fire life, those on the road to retirement and all in between.
This past November, I hung up my helmet as fire chief for Salt Spring Island Rescue in B.C. After almost 25 years of service, my heart told me it was time for a change. I was feeling the effects on my health, so I decided to resign and move towards new opportunities with this deep introspection. Retiring has been nothing short of a rollercoaster.
The fire service is a tight-knit community. We wear other fire departments’ t-shirts and collect fire memorabilia from around the globe. Fire fighting is in our blood and instantly becomes what we identify ourselves with. The fire community provides a worldwide camaraderie and a genuine sense of belonging. That feeling helps us propel forward, strive for constant improvement, and serve the public the best we can. This sense of belonging runs deep in our veins and forms what we think of ourselves. It forms the basis for our identity, both internally and externally. Unfortunately, this fire service hardwiring can be challenging to separate from when it is time to move on.
For most of my adult life, I have been a firefighter, and then that retirement day comes, and I am no longer a firefighter, but now a civilian. I believe that once you become a firefighter or a fire chief, you are always a brother or sister of mine, and you are always a part of the fire family. If you have this mindset, moving forward becomes less lonely.
I know from recent experience that retiring from the fire service is tricky. It pulls on your heart and can be extremely difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. This deep-rooted belief in ourselves makes us feel broken or empty when we depart from active duty.
Here are my top four strategies to make a smoother transition from fire to whatever is next.
1. A retirement plan: I did not realize it, but I have been planning my career and retirement unintentionally. As a firefighter, I suggest that from day one you begin to brainstorm your future, your advancement goals, and how you want to leave the service. I might sound dark or lazy to be considering retiring when you first join, but looking back on my career history, I feel those pre-plans helped me navigate the transitions the best I could. Planning your retirement is not a reflection of your eagerness to get out, it is demonstrating the normalcy of leaving and preparing yourself that much more. The day you join, technically, you are on the path to exiting at some point.
2. A new purpose: I found that having a new idea, hobby, or career in mind helped fill the voids in the transition. Going from active duty to retirement with nothing to look forward to can be detrimental to a healthy retirement. Find a new purpose that provides you with satisfaction and joy. A handy tool to try is Ikigia, a Japanese philosophy that helps describe and hone in on your life. The fundamentals of Ikigai contains all parts of a happy and healthy life. These four components include passion, vocation, profession, and mission. If your retirement pre-plan has space for your encore career to meet these four factors of meaning, you will genuinely enjoy the future.
3. Mental health support: As I noted, this transition halfway through life can be uncomfortable and new territory for most. Doing it, with no mental health support, can be challenging. I worked with several health professionals to help guide me through the evolution.
4. Support system: On top of psychological help, I found great support amongst the fire service community, family, and friends. If you can, build an army of supporters to be in your court. It makes for a safer transition than navigating it alone.
I, like most, experienced a roller coaster of emotions and doubts throughout my final year. My mind kept pulling at me, questioning all the things I was giving up, all the fantastic people I was leaving behind, but my heart always won. My most challenging day was when I had to submit my final farewell to the organization and the community. I did not anticipate any changes leading up to that, but pressing that enter key was tough. Because I knew as soon as I pressed that send button, it was done. It was a chapter in my life closed.
It’s all too common for those nearing the end of their career to let their ego get in the way, alongside thoughts of “no one can do what I do,” or “I just want to do one more year, then I will…” One of our main goals while climbing the ladder is to build future leaders underneath us. Those we teach, and prepare can continue the legacy with honour. It helps to know that we are all replaceable, and with that mindset, one’s ego is better managed, and one can let go more quickly.
A critical goal of my career plan was to retire on a high note, which occurred in many ways, but not as I had planned, of course. Being away from my fire family was a strain on me for sure, but I feel I still left a mark on our organization and left on a high.
Discharging of the Loyal Soldier is a term that originates from the World War II Japanese who struggled with integration back into civilian life. The concept is simple and allows for permission to discharge with honours. What the Japanese did was welcome home their heroes with an abundance of love and accolades. Finally, announce to all that they are free to stand down, thus sending a message of support and helping them to be valuable members of society. We should all embrace the discharging of our loyal firefighters by celebrating them and helping them in the following chapters of their lives.
Many may be shocked that I would leave a sought-after position and career but let me tell you, my authentic self is at peace with it. It is okay to retire when you are ready, when your heart and gut say it is time. No one tells you that you must stay active in the fire service, and there is no rule that you must remain until the bittersweet end once you’ve joined. Sometimes you can leave your legacy in a much shorter time.
Richard Rohr, author of Falling Upward, said: “This kind of closure is much needed for most of us at the end of all major transitions in life. Because we have lost any sense of the need for such rites of passage, most of our people have no clear crossover to the second half of their own lives.”
As you navigate your career, as either a professional volunteer or a career firefighter, we must remember we are human first and that being a firefighter is only part of your life. May you all live a healthy career and a healthy retirement.
Arjuna George retired as a fire chief in November of 2021 after serving the department in Salt Spring Island, B.C., since 1997. He is now a fire service coach and consultant. Visit silverarrowco.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org