Firefighters: Preparing Physically, but Failing Educationally and Financially

I was so excited. I was so depressed.

I was excited to start my career in the fire service, but it seemed as if it may already be over. Depression hit.

For approximately 3 months I thought and was spoken to as though I had come to a crossroads in my career. After just over ten years in the fire department I was injured. No, not making a daring rescue, or in a blazing inferno, or putting myself into a position of danger to save others. No. I was injured, according to my doctor, a long time ago and finally did “something” (while at the gym) to bring attention to the fact that I was broken. Literally, broken. I have fractures in my spine, which make my spine prone to other injuries such as the ruptured disc that revealed my previous injury.

Why am I telling you this? Because you need to prepare in two major ways.

My father taught many valuable lessons, some unspoken, but no less profound. You see, my father was also a firefighter and he too was injured. After just under ten years he was fighting a large fire. While walking on the street he hadn’t noticed a construction ditch and fell in fracturing his hip. It turned out that his injury was career ending. Having no idea what to do, my father began working here and there to provide for his family and eventually went back to school to become a computer technician from which he eventually retired after a long career.

We work in a dangerous environment for sure.

Fire, Police, and Emergency Medical Services are some of the most physically demanding professions out there. My father found out the hard way that you have to have a back up, but he found out too late. Me on the other hand, My father never told me to have a back up plan. He was more of the type to push me to gain all the knowledge I could, all the certifications I could, and ultimately showed me to have an ace in the hole in case I was injured. This is the first way to prepare yourself.

Education is key and our first major preparation.

Do all you can, not only to learn your job, not only to keep up on new techniques, but also to further your education for the future. Keep in mind that the future may not be in the current position you hold. You may want to look into fire investigation, or a degree in a non-fire related field. Either way you can bet that more education will help in what your current role is and it will serve as a safety net for the off chance you can no longer perform the duties you perform today. Even if you don’t use this new knowledge immediately we never know what the future holds. Perhaps when you retire you might not be quite ready for the relaxation and start a new career, but you will be ready for anything.

I was able to relax more when I realized that my family will be provided for and I could provide it. I remembered that I had a graduate degree and even though I loved riding that truck, I knew that my education would help me through whatever might happen. I thought about it long and hard over those three months that emergency services weren’t the only profession I could accomplish. I was one of the lucky ones. I came back with a motivation to continue that I didn’t know I had. I ended up not needing that back up plan as of yet but I know its there. I am even at the beginning of a new venture because of it. Education is your ace in the hole.

What is the second preparation to make?

Your finances are the answer.  I was worried about my salary not being there. I was worried about that all-powerful word, Pension, which has been talked about so much these days. Taking a closer look at those finances brought to light an issue that we all face. What if it isn’t there? This wasn’t just a question of what happens if I couldn’t work. It became a question when I looked into our contract with our city and asked our union negotiators what the next contract will bring. The same is true even if your retirement plan involved other investments or a 401k or similar plan.

I must say I was disheartened again when the outlook did not appear positive. We all face the issue of benefits being altered or removed. We are moving in a direction where we, the emergency services community, must take the responsibility into our own hands. Please do not take this suggestion to prepare as if I want to see benefits taken away along with pension funds lost to 401K plans. I am merely suggesting that along with education to prepare you for the “what if” you must take the time to prepare for the “what if” of retirement?

This is the second unspoken lesson from my father that I didn’t understand until I was injured and reviewing my own financial fears. When I began my career in the fire service I had a great pension lined up for when I retired. I still do. But there were a few mentors that had given me some sound advise to start contributing into my own investments. We call it Deferred Compensation, which is a pre-taxed account to initiate and contribute too to which you draw from and are taxed on at the time of withdrawal during your retirement. Some may have a 401k or 457B, but whatever account or fund you have access to, my advice is to start as soon as possible. If you are lucky enough to be one of those departments that still has a solid pension that is fantastic. Do it anyway. We do not know what the future holds for us when it comes to or local governments financial status ten or twenty years down the road. Talk to your department members. Let them know the importance. Hire a financial planner to speak to your members about retirement and your best options. What can it hurt to save some of your hard earned money for the future so your next phase in life won’t have to be hard earned?

These two steps not only saved me from mental anguish but also are there in case I can no longer work. They are there if I can work through a long career and want the added support after I retire. They are there if I need them during my career. The best part about these two preparations for me is that they are there. They can be there for you too.

Roy Gagne

-Lieutenant Roy Gagne

Norwalk (CT) Fire Department

About romduck

Rom Duckworth is a dedicated emergency responder and award-winning educator with more than twenty five years of experience working in career and volunteer fire departments, public and private emergency services and hospital based healthcare systems. Currently a career Fire Captain / Paramedic and EMS Coordinator Rom is a frequent speaker at national conferences and a regular contributor to research, magazines, and textbooks on topics of field operations, leadership, and education in emergency services. Contact Rom via www.romduck.com
  • The day-to-day struggles of being a firefighter, paramedic, EMT, dispatcher, or police officer can make it too easy to forget to take care of our families and future. so many of us begin our careers when we’re young and invincible and don’t realize the need for preparation until it is later than we should have waited, sometimes too late. thank you Roy for sharing your personal story.