When to Say When

By Michael Morse

There comes a time when a firefighter knows it’s time to say when. Usually, we know it long before we actually retire. Climbing icy ladders, hauling charged lies up burned-out stairways, looking for pulses on mangled bodies, and showing up again and again wears a person down.

The thrill of the job—and the

Time Bomb

love of it—often keeps us going long after we should have put our turnout gear on the hook to stay, which leads us to an interesting dilemma that most people will never face: What is a gray-haired, gray-skinned, set-in-his-ways, seen-it-all, done-it-all old coot going to do now?

Regular people think it is a breeze to put in 20+ years as a firefighter, retire in our mid-40s or early 50s, and either retire on an island somewhere or spend the rest of our days golfing. Little do they know that we could not live on our pension alone; we would run out of money within a year, and die of boredom in two.

You simply cannot spend the most active part of your life responding to alarms, fighting fire, rescuing people, working during the disasters that keep people safely in their homes or evacuated from their communities, and then ride off into the sunset. We need to stay vibrant, engaged, and productive. It’s in our blood and in the way we think, the way we feel, and who we are.

Inactivity is only for the time between the bell; we savor those quiet times all while anticipating what is next and, while on duty, there is ALWAYS something next. Even between shifts, we know that something is waiting, something that will challenge us mentally and physically and bring out the best in us and leave us exhausted and satisfied.

Until it’s over.

It is difficult to face the end. Sometimes, the end comes crashing down on us. Fifty- and 60-year-old people really shouldn’t be pushing themselves to the brink on a regular basis, but firefighters do it all of the time. We get hurt and work hurt and do the job until we come to the realization that by continuing to do it after we shouldn’t we are not helping as much as we fool ourselves into believing.

Experience is invaluable in the fire service, but so is youth and competence. Sometimes, the experience we offer is not as valuable as the energy we no longer have. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but swallow it we must if we are truly dedicated to being the best firefighter we can be.

Not all of us will be chiefs, and those of us that do not follow that career path need to let go of the thing that they love most: firefighting.

Fear not—it’s not over until we say it’s over! Just because we put in our papers and still have 30 or so years left does not mean we are irrelevant. We need not be one of those people who can’t let it go and pine over the days when we used to matter. We don’t need to visit the station weekly and have a coffee with the guys or listen to the scanner night and day, but we can keep an eye on the fire service by staying aware of incidents through the news, stay in touch with friends through social media, and speak up when a civilian disparages firefighters.

We matter only as much as we choose to. We may no longer be active, but we are something that most people will never be: seasoned, salty, experienced people who know how to handle themselves during an emergency, how to stay calm, and lead when we must, but follow orders when prudent. We know how to let go, trust other people to do the job that we once did, and stay out of the way and let those people have their moment.

It’s not easy—staying relevant—but it is easy to find happiness knowing that what we did mattered, and that is timeless. Just because many of us find ourselves working part time or even full time doing jobs that can never compare to what we once did does not make those jobs unimportant.

Satisfaction comes easy to people who know the value of a job well done, no matter how mundane. Firefighters spend long hours doing boring things that, without being done, would jeopardize the outcome of the entire job.

Work isn’t always about life and death; there is a lot of living to do by simply working.

Originally published in Fire Engineering

Image of Ralph “Time Bomb” Deangelis courtesy of Eric Norberg, and will be featured in my soon to be released (2020) collection of Fire/EMS essays.

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