The temptation of mandatory retirement
By Peter Sells
As Ontario considers mandatory retirement at age 60 for career firefighters, Peter Sells says a more comprehensive health strategy with a broader focus is required to protect firefighters and those they serve.
By Peter Sells
April 20, 2011 – In the late 1980s, I accepted a temporary assignment as a firefighter/dispatcher in the communications centre attached to what was then the headquarters fire hall of the Toronto Fire Department. I thought it would be a great way to learn about an important aspect of fire operations, and it was. On any given day or night, I was part of the process of getting apparatuses and personnel to emergency scenes, arranging fill-in apparatuses to close service gaps left by major alarms, co-ordinating information with allied agencies, and providing information as requested by incident commanders. As a firefighter who had not yet reached first-class rate, working as a dispatcher was quite an opportunity to meet all of the senior officers of the department and see them in action.
One of the things that I found a bit dubious was the assignment of older firefighters, who had had heart problems, to the communications centre. I understand and support the idea of accommodation of firefighters for whom active firefighting operations is no longer medically advisable; but the assumption that all other duties are necessarily less stressful is untested and dangerous. As an example, one afternoon toward the end of a typical day shift, we had a sudden rush of emergency calls that lasted more than 90 minutes as a spring storm front moved across the city. In that hour and a half, we dispatched almost twice the daily average of 100 calls, one after the other, in rapid succession. As our relief personnel showed up for shift change, they each had to stand by beside us until we could take a brief break in radio traffic to let them sit down and plug in. Once we had been relieved, there was no time for the usual conversation and camaraderie, since those who were now on duty were as fully occupied as we had just been. So I stood there for a few minutes, then went down to my car and drove home.
This is the weird part; halfway home a song came on the radio that I had heard dozens or hundreds of times before, the Temptations’ version of Papa Was A Rolling Stone. Suddenly, as that iconic bass line kept thumping across my radio, I found myself bawling my eyes out. What the hey? OK, so the poor guy never knew his father; too bad – so sad; what the hell is wrong with me?
In retrospect it is clear that I had not had a chance to resolve the stress of the shift, and it found an outlet in the song.
So let me bring this into the present; over the last decade, the concept of mandatory retirement at age 65 in Canadian society has dissolved. This has been due to certain provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and some demographic realities of greater numbers of active and employable seniors. Despite the retirement of mandatory retirement, many employment contracts stipulate that firefighters cannot remain in active fire/rescue operations past a specified age, that age usually being 60. As a result, some departments are faced with the task of accommodating firefighters into positions in other areas of the fire service. The same assumption is being made here that was made in the example I gave above – that any and all positions other than fire fighting are inherently less stressful on a sexagenarian body. I am not saying that this assumption is correct or incorrect, just that it has not been proven and, therefore, is potentially dangerous.
Accommodating firefighters as they reach the age of 60 may be more difficult in a smaller service, where there are fewer options for placement. And, so far, this has affected only career firefighters who are under negotiated contracts. It is not hard to see that a volunteer service would have even fewer options, and would face greater pressures to leave aging firefighters in their positions given the ever-present problems with volunteer recruitment and retention.
So here are the problems as I see them: the stresses of a fire response are the same in a big city, small town or rural village; a 60-plus year-old human body does not know the employment model of its occupant; neither does that body differentiate between the stresses of fire fighting, fire training or emergency communications.
Retirement from fire/rescue operations at age 60 is one method of protecting the health of the firefighter, but a more comprehensive strategy with a broader focus is required.