Retiring from Fire
What will your next adventure be?
August 14, 2023
By Elena De Luigi
Hanging up the uniform to retire can be a mix of emotions for many in the fire service. It is a decision made under the considerable weight of what will come next and what will no longer be. Some are ready and eager to embark on a new path, while others are more hesitant.
This hesitancy to officially retire or leave Fire for something else can bring up many thoughts and emotions. Some people may experience an identity crisis, questioning themselves about who they would be if they are no longer in the fire service.
As an executive career coach, and founder and president of SeeShell Consulting, Shelley Langille works with uniformed members and first responders across Canada. She said she sees many fire service members experience a roller coaster of emotions and feelings about leaving the fire service. There can even be negative assumptions and stigma surrounding the idea of retirement.
“There are some folks that just can’t wait, they’re really prepared. They have their boat, and they have their camper, and they’re ready to go. And there are others that are kind of like deer in the headlights,” she said. “Getting out of a uniform is especially hard. It can be really confusing, and conflicting and [can come with an] identity crisis and all this stuff that goes on in the general population. But add in the uniform and the responsibility factor, it’s like, ‘Who am I outside of the uniform?’”
That lack of purpose and identity can translate into having too much time on your hands and not much to do. Without a sense of purpose or a reason to get out of bed, Langille said some people may even develop bad habits such as excessive drinking, smoking, or living a sedentary lifestyle.
When Fire Chief (Ret.) Cynthia Ross Tustin retired from the fire service in August 2021, she said her decision to move on came from a place of proactive thinking. She wanted to avoid the fallout from the cumulative stress she was experiencing at work while dealing with daily emergencies and facilitating the demands of local government.
“It was time to walk away,” she said. “I accomplished everything that I wanted to do in that set of goals, and it was time for some new goals and some new things where I didn’t have to be helping solve other people’s emergencies every day.”
Ross Tustin spent 35 years in Fire, serving smaller communities across Ontario including Barrie, Bradford, and Essa Township as well the fire marshal’s office. She was also the first woman in Ontario to become a fire chief, and the first female president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs.
“The only reason I really went into [the fire service] was because people told me no,” she said. “I wanted to serve and that’s why I just kept pushing. Somebody made the mistake of telling me ‘No.’”
When she first decided to leave the fire service, Ross Tustin had many thoughts running through her mind, the first few being, what was her sense of purpose? What would she do during retirement that would still give her the “adrenaline high” that being a fire chief gave her?
“No human being alive ever wants to exist without a sense of purpose. When you’re in the fire service, your sense of purpose is very clear. It’s direct, it’s in front of your face all the time. You can fulfill that need for a sense of purpose all the time by helping people,” she said. “I’m wondering what the heck was going to be my sense of purpose because it sure wasn’t going to be cleaning the house and keeping the lawn cut. No matter how valuable those things might be, it wasn’t going to cut it.”
Ross Tustin also worried about what kind of role model she would be to other women in the fire service if she left her position.
“As a woman who fought all those hurdles to get to the top of the pile, I wondered, ‘Was I leaving too soon?’ ‘Had I done enough to help other women behind me?’” she said. “It almost felt like I was giving up on that piece; guilty of quitting the sisterhood, so to speak.”
Despite her initial uncertainty, Ross Tustin decided to pursue writing and painting full time. She currently writes a blog about retirement called, I’m Thinking of Retiring. She also paints whenever she can and does copywriting for several clients. She does not consider herself as retired, but rather, self-tenured.
“For decades, my life had been tactical and practical. And yet, I’m way more artsy-fartsy than I am tactical and practical. But you kind of put the creative side aside, and so I knew it was time to do something artsy-fartsy because I was done with tactical and practical,” she said.
Over on Canada’s east coast, Deputy Fire Chief (Ret.) Gilbert MacIntyre retired from the Sydney Fire Department on Cape Breton Island in February. His path to retirement was somewhat unexpected. He was initially looking into some pension plan information for someone else, and he inadvertently found out what his numbers were.
It was then that MacIntyre understood why he had seen the familiar blank stare on the faces of his former colleagues after having come back from getting their numbers at city hall.
“Once they go to get their numbers, they’re checked out, their eyes gloss over. They’re no longer with us. They go into another world. They might spend another couple of years with us, but they’re gone,” he said. “When I saw the numbers on the computer that day, I saw the exit sign.”
MacIntyre did not mind going to work, but after 34 years of working in the fire service, he began to think about the possibility of retirement. He spoke to his wife and when they saw it was something he could pursue, he began the process while training and preparing the man who would eventually replace him as deputy fire chief.
“It just hits you that it’s time to go. I didn’t think it was going to hit me. Maybe it was seeing the numbers or maybe it was just my time, but it clicked over,” he said.
As someone who lives a very active lifestyle, MacIntyre was happy to retire and enjoy the extra time spent with his family and the ability to focus on new and existing hobbies, such as playing the guitar, practicing karate and Reiki, teaching yoga and going to the gym. There was no new job waiting for him on his last day at the fire hall, and he was okay with that.
“People said to me when I was getting ready to retire, ‘You’re going to have to find something else to do.’ No, I’m not. I’m retiring. I’m not changing jobs,” he said. “Firefighters are very good at knowing what to do with enough downtime.”
When Fire Chief (Ret.) Shawn McKerry was leaving his role at the Fort Saskatchewan Fire Department in Alberta, he was happy to be done. He felt he had accomplished more than he had ever expected to do as a fire chief and welcomed the idea of passing the baton to the next person willing to take on the role and the responsibilities that come with it.
“I think the emergency service world can [be hard] on people and you have to know when maybe it is time to hang up the uniform,” he said. “Although I’m still fairly young, and still have lots of railroad in front of me, now I can put my efforts into the next thing.”
While McKerry has yet to reach the standard age of retirement, he hung up his uniform to pursue other meaningful work that was fire fighting adjacent. In his second career, McKerry moved into the role of interim chief administrative officer in Brazeau County, Alta., where he made many organizational commitments to help support that community’s fire department.
He then moved into an educational role at Lakeland College’s Emergency Training Centre (ETC). As the dean, McKerry now works with incoming fire fighting students to pass on his knowledge of the fire service to the next generation of firefighters.
“Don’t be afraid to step out [of the fire service] because I think a lot of the leadership skills that we get to develop either intentionally or unintentionally or accidentally, from our roles and the experiences we’ve got, can make us greater leaders in higher up roles,” he said.
When McKerry left Brazeau County to become the dean at Lakeland’s ETC, he initially was worried about leaving because he felt like he was giving up his connection to a municipality and losing the ability to impact local service. However, he was able to shift his mindset to a more positive outlook on his new role.
“My brain kicked in and said, ‘Wait, I can actually have an impact and influence on the national level of emergency services – fire specifically – but also emergency management and hopefully other avenues,’” he said. “I can impact this at a national level, which is then going to have an impact on the chiefs that are providing [emergency services] to their local municipalities. My local community has now changed to the national community. I can get on board with this.”
While Ross Tustin offered advice for fire chiefs thinking about retirement or leaving the fire service for another role, she said it is important to get all the paperwork done on presumptive cancers. Even if a fire chief retires without a cancer diagnosis, they may be diagnosed with the disease in the future, and it may or may not be limited to something presumptive.
“Make sure you have all the paperwork you need for either you or your family in case you pass away because you need the assistance of your fire department for the data and the records,” she said, adding the paperwork should be added to a last will and testament.
Ross Tustin also suggested thinking outside the box when it comes to finding other activities or careers to do after leaving the fire service since fire chiefs have many transferrable skills to offer.
“You can’t have just one hobby. You need to cultivate multiple interests. And some you need to cultivate with your spouse, because you might be back to doing things with that person for the first time in decades. So, cultivate multiple interests and find things that you can do by yourself and find things to do together because that’s just as important.”
Similarly, Langille recommends focusing on your values and figuring out what feeds your soul and brings you joy. Retiring with a sense of who you are and what your purpose is when you’re not wearing the uniform can make the daunting thought of retirement less frightening.
“Our identity should not be linked and tied so inextricably to what we do or our title,” she said, echoing MacIntyre’s sentiments that the fire service uniform is the same as any other uniform.
“It’s a coat you put on to show what you’re doing at that time,” he said. “Look at what else you have in your life.”
MacIntyre said Team Red has been a sounding board for him throughout his retirement, and they have been instrumental in helping him work through any challenges he might be facing.
Team Red is a group of fire chiefs and associated fire-service people from across Canada who began meeting over Zoom during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic to discuss best practices, share ideas and support each other throughout the pandemic. The group has also been a large proponent of mental health in the fire service.
An additional retirement resource Langille suggested was to implement a version of the Canadian military’s Second Career Assistance Network (SCAN) seminars. These workshops bring in experts to discuss insurance plans and pensions and invite educational institutions that offer employment and programs to people who want to pursue another career after leaving the fire service.
“The point is to keep ourselves relevant, and busy and connected,” she said, adding that many people stay connected to the fire service in different ways even after they’ve moved on.
“In order to understand where we are and where we’re going, we need to understand our values. When we understand our values, we understand our why. We understand what motivates and drives us. When we understand what motivates and drives us, we ensure that we are getting what we need from our work life and our retirement life.”
When Langille speaks to fire chiefs at conferences, she shares the following tips for those who are retiring or are experiencing job loss or career disruption:
- Recognize you are not alone. Others have walked this path successfully, and this could be the start of a fulfilling new role or retirement bliss.
- Acknowledge your emotions. Once you name and process them, you’ll have a greater ability to move on.
- Share your story with everyone. Gather insights, experiences, and strategies others have used that could be helpful for your next move.
- Get your finances in check, whether you’ve lost your job or are planning to retire.
- Consult with a lawyer. Ensure you are being treated fairly in the eyes of the law and get the severance package you deserve.
- Connect with your professional network. If you don’t have a network, connect with family and friends. Talk about how you’re feeling, how you are being affected, and express your desire for new opportunities. If you don’t have a professional network, build one, starting today.
- Assess your education, skills, attributes. Set goals to enhance your personal and professional development. Take courses, read books, and become more knowledgeable in something that will help you in your next steps or help you find your passion.
- Keep a routine. Get up every day like you did before, get dressed, and create regular activities to keep yourself occupied, engaged, and connected to your community.
- If you don’t already, consider volunteering. We all know how doing for others makes us feel better. Don’t give until it hurts – give until it feels good.
- Seek professional help if you’re overwhelmed. Recognize that you may need outside help in certain areas and there is nothing wrong with that.
- Meditate, eat well, and exercise. Each of these activities have been proven to lift our spirits, strengthen our resilience, and improve the health of our mind and body.
Retirement brings mixed emotions and marks a significant transition in one’s daily routines. As you depart your role, you leave room for the next generation to step in and make their own mark in the fire service. It is a proud moment to reflect on a legacy.
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