As the spouse of a firefighter, you already know about the sacrifices required from both of you by your mate’s chosen career: days spent away from family; danger on the job; juggling schedules; and all the rest of it. No doubt, you’re looking forward to your spouse’s retirement, along with opportunities it can bring for more time spent together pursuing mutual interests, a chance to travel more, or the ability to do the myriad other things that just don’t fit easily into the life of an active firefighter.
You already know, too, that firefighting is a special occupation—more like a calling, really—but you may not know some of the particulars about retirement age, pensions, and other factors that make a firefighter’s retirement a little different from that of most other professions. Let’s take a look at a few of the things that you and your spouse need to consider as you both begin planning for retirement from active duty.
Often, we tend to focus on the money stuff to the exclusion of almost everything else. And while it’s certainly vital to plan carefully for how retirement will be funded, there are emotional, social, and mental-health considerations that should be central to how you and your spouse are thinking about retirement.
For one thing, you probably know about the special bond that develops among firefighters after years of sharing duty together. After all, crews on duty are basically living together as a family unit: cooking, sleeping, responding to calls, providing station and equipment upkeep, and doing pretty much everything else together during their shifts. But after retirement, that “second family” isn’t going to be the same. While lifelong friendships will no doubt continue, relationships will necessarily shift due to the different rhythms and responsibilities of post-retirement life. You and your spouse need to think about this before retirement and plan for ways to deal with the changes that will come.
Also, because of the physical demands of the profession and the typically lower mandated retirement age, many retired firefighters still have years of productive and active life to look forward to. The sense of purpose provided by their careers as firefighters will need to be replaced by something else. That could be a second career, by devotion to a hobby, by volunteering or employment in a valued cause, or other things. But you and your spouse will need to spend some time before retirement, considering your options and deciding on the mix that will be best for your lives, relationships, and interests.
Thanks to years of work and negotiation, firefighters in most communities enjoy solid pension benefits that provide a good level of income during their retirement years. But here again, there are some special considerations that need to be factored in during pre-retirement planning. For one thing, most firefighters don’t receive Social Security, because the local governments that employ them don’t pay into the Social Security system. Instead, firefighter retirement pensions are typically funded by a combination of earnings growth in the invested funds, contributions by the employer, and direct contributions from salaries.
Another factor in firefighter pensions is the typically shorter life expectancies of firefighters. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, because of their dangerous occupations and frequent exposure to harmful chemicals and other toxic substances in the course of their work, firefighters suffer a disproportionately high rate of various types of cancers and lung disorders. Also, firefighters are subject to many more on-the-job hazards and are at greater risk for accidental job-related deaths.
There are also multiple options to consider for the payout of the retirement pension, including a straight life annuity (payments for the life of the pensioner, ceasing upon pensioner’s death), period certain (with benefits guaranteed for a minimum number of years, but payable for the life of the pensioner even if longer than the guarantee period), joint and survivor annuity (reduced benefits guaranteed for the life of both the pensioner and a beneficiary—usually a spouse), lump-sum distribution, and others. It’s important for you and your spouse to consider all the payment options available to you and choose based on what is best for your lifestyle and situation.
All these decisions can seem overwhelming, but you don’t have to do it alone. At Mathis Public Safety Retirement, we understand the options and choices facing retiring firefighters and their families, based on first-hand experience. If we can help you start charting your family’s course to a satisfying, successful retirement, please get in touch for more information.