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Flashpoint: May 2012

About 30 years ago, I had a summer job at a chemical plant as an assistant in the maintenance shop.

April 20, 2012
By Peter Sells

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About 30 years ago, I had a summer job at a chemical plant as an assistant in the maintenance shop. Most of the time, I would be cleaning or painting anything that didn’t move, but sometimes I would be a second pair of hands for one of the mechanics or technicians, and I learned a lot in those months, especially from Louis. He was probably the slowest-moving person I have ever known. Glaciers could pass this guy. He worked deliberately and expertly and then strolled back to the shop when he was done. But when I was flat on my back, twisted underneath a tank, holding a wrench for what seemed like forever, he would talk; to himself, mostly, but I was in earshot.

One day, he told me all about a novel he was writing. I wanted to read it. The story was funny, irreverent, and unfortunately written in Louis’s native Hungarian. He told me, “It’s important to leave something behind when you go.”

That single nugget was worth more than all the technical experience I gained in the two summers I spent at that plant. I have reflected on it often over the years. Aside from the direct example of creating a lasting literary work (such as a textbook, a field guide, or this magazine column), I have been struck by the parallels in life to which Louis’s advice applies. We all leave something behind, each time we perform our firefighting and rescue duties. As officers and instructors, the training, coaching and mentoring we do every day leaves a lasting impression on our team members. But we are all citizens and family members first, and firefighters second.  What is the legacy that we leave behind for our society and our loved ones?

I remember discussing retirement, many years ago, with a close friend and colleague. It was in the immediate context of the news of the death of a retired firefighter we both had known well, who had retired only the previous year. My friend said, “I’m tired of going to retirement parties and then marching at the same guy’s funeral 18 month later.” I am certain that many of you can relate to that. Of course, none of us knows when the grim reaper will come calling, but there is a difference between hoping for a long, healthy retirement and planning for it, both personally and financially. What are we leaving behind?

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These thoughts were among the many I had to sort out when I was planning my early retirement. The key issue was whether I wanted to play it safe, work another six years and guarantee myself an indexed monthly pension, or take the commuted value of my pension as a lump sum to invest as I saw fit and start to live and work on my own terms. I chose door No. 2.  The regular route is safe and secure, but as I explained it to my friends, if I got hit by a bus a few months after my retirement, my wife would get only two-thirds of my pension; and if she got hit by the same bus, the kids would get squat. Instead, I have it all tucked away with no intention of touching it until age 70. It is all mine, and it will be part of my estate one day.

Aside from financial considerations, I wanted to retire while I was still young enough to pursue a second career. I’m still figuring out what I want to be when I grow up. For now, entrepreneurism is the challenge and the fun that had been missing for a long time. Think of it as personal succession planning – except that what is being prepared is the next situation for the person, not the next person for the situation. Imagine the life you want in20 or 30 years, and start preparing for it now. Is your pension going to be your only source of income? Will your mortgage and other debts be cleared by the time you hang up your helmet? What will you be doing with your time? Don’t wait until your first Monday morning as a retired firefighter to figure these things out.

This whole maudlin subject came up because history has repeated itself. A firefighter I knew retired just a few months ago, moved to cottage country to start his new life, and got hit by a minivan last week. He worked his whole career, the good and the bad, and cashed pension checks that you could count on one hand. A safe, secure retirement comes to an untimely end.  Ironically, and so sadly, his wife had been struck and killed by a train a few years ago. Any plans that had been made, any dreams that were about to come true, any as yet unfulfilled legacy – all lost in an instant. Rest in peace, Rick.

So ask yourselves, what will you leave behind?


Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory councils of the Ontario Fire College and the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com


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