On the surface, Thursday looked like any other day. It was rainy and chilly. I was in a week long class about how to plan memorials for line of duty deaths and how to care for survivors and families. It was inspiring, but also depressing. I felt somewhat irritable and sad.
BUT. Despite appearances, Thursday was a unique day. It was the day I was eligible to retire.
Retirement often conjures up an image of an elderly person, but, although I may seem old to the 21 year olds I hire, I'm not elderly. I'm also (unfortunately) not a millionaire, one of the other categories of people who can retire early. I am, however, a federal wildland firefighter, and we (along with law enforcement) have this benefit.
Long ago, it was determined that firefighters needed to be "young and vigorous." No oldsters wanted on the fireline! Because of this, you can't get initially hired into a permanent firefighting or law enforcement position after age 37. At age 57, they kick you out. Before 57, if you have 20 years in as a permanent employee at age 50 (seasonal time doesn't count if it was after 1989), or 25 years at ANY age, you can retire with full benefits.
It sounds great. And really, it is. Very few people can or want to be digging fireline and carrying 50 pound packs for 16 hours a day at age 65, and we don't have to. Many of my coworkers have slipped discs, aching shoulders, and little cartilage left in their knees 20 years before that. But there are some drawbacks.
Not many of us can afford to fully retire at 50, or even 57. We don't make very much money considering the hazardous work we do. A brand new college graduate in a lot of fields out earns many of us in the height of our careers. Old firefighters used to be able to move into dispatch, but now there are career dispatchers we can't out compete for the jobs. Spending so much time fighting fire, we are often left without the skills to do something else.
There's always options though. Many retirees come back in the summer to get picked up on an as needed basis if there are fires. You can go work for a state agency; they don't care how old you are. You can go back to work at the agency in some other capacity if you have the ability. Some people have saved enough that they don't need to do anything at all.
I still went to work on Friday. I don't know what the future holds. I could stick it out until they make me leave, or three consecutive bad days in a row could make the decision for me. It's a little frightening, but also exciting. Every footstep on the fireline and every helicopter flight has eventually led to this new chapter. I'm looking forward to writing it.