Engage Your Retirees: Start an Emeritus Program

Retirees can be a great cheerleader to the department and offer great benefits when it comes to dealing with the public, municipal leadership, and elected officials.
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Provide a deterrence to post-career isolation and dissension

By Tommy E. Jones

Fire service leaders are just that….leaders!  Men and women who have to make tough decisions based on imperfect information, manage assets, and trudge the lonely path of dealing with humans and all their complexities.  This is especially true in the fire service because of the level of passion that exists within our culture.  This profession is one of extreme pride, ownership, and heavily rooted in a family-style atmosphere of teamwork that is often formed in stressful situations and also in the quiet hours of firehouse life.  Keeping morale high is an on-going duty of fire service leaders.  Morale around the station often shows up on the emergency scene, which highlights the importance of a workplace that is motivating, positive, and free of tension and hostilities.  Low morale can also reflect on the public’s opinion of the department as well.  This is not only just for active-duty personnel, but for the honored group of retirees that came before us.

Can retirees be a great asset or a liability?  One might offer an opinion that when someone retires from the fire service, they are not the concern of the leadership anymore. In reality, that is true, but any chief officer would be remiss if they did not recognize the complexities and benefits that retirees present to the department.  Retirees can be a great cheerleader to the department and offer great benefits when it comes to dealing with the public, municipal leadership, and elected officials.  They bring an ‘inside-outside’ perspective to the department and can lobby for the department in a more non-bias posture than active-duty personnel.  Retirees can be a great continuation of the story of any department and give younger personnel a more grounded part of the proud traditions and honor of the American fire service.

Retirees can also be a thorn in a leader’s side, as well.  This can spawn from a variety of reasons; bad blood between them and the leadership over past decisions, disciplinary actions, and promotions that didn’t go the retiree’s way.  Such animosities can get ugly and often find themselves played out in backstabbing of the leadership to active personnel, other retirees, elected officials, and the general public over social media.  Some of these reasons are burdens of leadership issues because some, if not most, of these grievances were conscious decisions made by chief officers out of necessity. 

Consider another reason.  Experts in the behavioral analysis profession have recognized another set of problems which often occur in retired firefighters.  Suicides affect not only line-duty personnel who face daily trauma and stress, but also retirees who have left the service and find themselves in a life much different than firehouse life.  Imagine you are a firefighter of any rank with over 25 to 30 years of service.  You have a uniform, you are recognized in the community, kids want to be you, and you are surrounded by your family at the fire station who you spend a third of your life with.  Then one day, your retirement date shows up and all of that is gone in a 24-hour period.  People no longer recognize you without your uniform and suddenly civilian life is less exciting and fulfilling then the life of a firefighter.  Of course, you can always go back and visit the gang at the station, but it’s never the same.  Personnel get moved around and the new firefighters don’t know you or what you’ve done for the department.  Some would argue that it’s the same in any job after being in the same place for a long time.  Those of us in the fire service know that the environment is different, and some retirees have trouble adjusting to that degree of change in their life, that is why suicide and dissension is a pressing concern for a retired firefighter.  But the story doesn’t have to end there.

The U.S. military has had a long tradition of allowing both veterans and retired personnel to wear their uniforms for certain occasions after their service is over.  These functions generally revolve around Veteran’s Day and 4th of July activities, funerals, weddings, and retirement services.  All branches of the military also have restrictions of when and where a uniform can be worn, meaning that they forbid the wearing of uniforms at, for example, at political activities or in a court of law.  The enforcement of such activities is done so in good faith and veterans and retired service members are asked to observe the same uniform and grooming standards as if they were active duty.  Why can’t a fire department allow their retirees to participate in that same spirit and carry their departmental pride into post-fire department career?

Consider starting an ‘Emeritus Program’ for your department.  What this basically does is assign a title to the retiree upon retirement.  Instead of referring to “John Smith, retired Lieutenant,” why not refer him as “John Smith, Lieutenant Emeritus?” The Emeritus title would be presented after the rank they held upon their retirement day.  “Fire Chief, Emeritus; Firefighter, Emeritus; Captain, Emeritus,”, etc.  The title distinguishes the retiree and is more befitting to the years of dedication to the honorable profession of the fire service.  The title also carries a unique privilege, the ability to don the Class A uniform in their retirement years.  The spirit of the program is to encourage our retirees to feel free to don their Class A for special events.  For example, if their grandchild wanted to bring them to their school for Fire Prevention Month, or to give a daughter away in marriage, or represent the department at a fire service funeral when active-duty personnel cannot attend.  Having an Emeritus program would also encourage retirees to wear their uniform at the fire academy graduation for their child or grandchild who follows in their footsteps as a firefighter. Many retired fire officers are also asked to speak at fire service conferences.  This policy could allow them to do so in uniform with the department’s blessings.  The possibilities are limitless. 

The way the program is structured is up to the individual department.  The City of Griffin Fire-Rescue in Georgia has an SOG for the program that outlines, scope, intentions, eligibility, ineligibility, and restrictions.  The SOG should list ‘good-faith’ activities that the Emeritus program could be utilized for and also activities that are restricted.  The standard should highlight what distinguishing features (if any) that should be included on the Class A uniform.  For example, Griffin Fire-Rescue assigns a red braid on the left sleeve of the jacket that is worn above gold or silver braiding for officers and alone for non-rank personnel.  They also provide a rope shoulder cord to be worn on the left shoulder.  Gold for Captains and above and silver for Lieutenants, firefighters, engineers, etc.  (Please see the PDF link for a generic policy).

Will all your retirees engage in the program? Certainly not.  Giving an ‘Emeritus’ option will demonstrate to active personnel that they will not have to face the hard blow of just giving up their career and that options will be there for them to remain a vibrant part of the department when they hit their magical day.  This program can be a great way to keep your retirees engaged, become more active in department activities, and provide a deterrence to post-career isolation and dissension.

For more information on how to start an ‘Emeritus’ program, please contact Tommy Jones, Fire Chief, Emeritus, Griffin Fire-Rescue at jonestommy@comcast.net.

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