Life After Firefighting: The Financial and Social Impacts

Woman OfficersI was fortunate enough to have had a great career as a firefighter and good health insurance with good benefits.  It did not come easy; it took me four years to get hired.  I worked very hard for many years preparing before I got hired, but when I “made it” I knew I had found the job that would be my career.

Nothing Lasts Forever

When you are young and in very good shape you think you’re ready for whatever type of call that comes in and that nothing can hurt you.  Being a firefighter is a great job, but one that does not come without risks.  Many risks.

We know little about what is secretly sabotaging our health until we feel a lump or see a TV spot promoting monthly breast checkups or we start to feel tired or just not right.  Then “out of nowhere” comes something that surprises you, and that tests your strength, will and determination.

???????????????????????????????Maybe it’s true of everyone, but I think firefighters in particular try not to listen to what their body is telling them.  We believe that the aches and pains and “not feeling right” are just part of the physical demands of the job.  That somehow if we acknowledge our vulnerability it will make us weaker.

I’m writing this to tell you:  Please listen to your body, its talking to you all the time.  “Listen” to your intuition!   While we all know and accept the fact that we might get physically injured on the job, we don’t think about our job making us physically sick.

breast_cancer_071012_mnBut then it happens.  I felt that lump in my breast and it was a powerfully rude awaking because we women know that breast cancer is serious business.  Too many of us know someone, or know someone who knows someone, who has died from breast cancer.  Or had to undergo the removal of one or both of their breasts to stop the disease.  Or had to undergo months of radiation and chemo therapy to stop the cancer.

The Financial Impact of a Disability Retirement

Regardless of where you look there are people, good people, who are battling all sorts of life challenges:  financial issues, health issues, family relations, child rearing, etc.  We certainly see our share as we go about our work as firefighters and EMS providers.  We feel empathy for the people that we serve on what, for many, is the worst day of their lives.  But until we’re “in their shoes” we don’t really know what it’s like.  Until we find ourselves in the “shoe store.”

I remember standing there in a state of shock, disbelief, and with my life’s memories flashing before my eyes!  Financially speaking?  I wasn’t even thinking about that.  It was the furthest thing from my mind. At least until much later.

(My heart goes out to those people who have to struggle with both issues—their health and how they are going to pay for it.  I hope they find the resources that they really need and the individuals who can really help them).

Financially when you are dealing with a disability retirement, and health issues you would normally put your health first and at the top of the list, but both are equally important.  I mean if you don’t have your health you really don’t have anything do you?  But you still have to pay your bills.

After my second diagnosis, I did not return to work and decided that my health and staying alive was much more important.  I had used all of my vacation time and my sick leave and was getting very worried about how I would financially deal with all my financial obligations and my health.

After talking with my uFMLA Request Formnion representatives and friends from the fire department, I was able to get sick leave donated to me by other fire department personnel on the job.  I was on paid leave for about year and a half and was very close to reaching “no pay” status before I received my disability retirement.  I could not have made it financially—until I won my disability claim—without that donated sick leave.  I am forever thankful to the firefighters of the Las Vegas Fire Department and Union Local 1285 for being there for me in my time of need.

Then “sticker shock” set in.  When I first saw how much of a difference there was between my regular paycheck and my disability retirement check…I knew big changes were in store.  I didn’t have much in my deferred compensation plan and my income-to-debt ratio was clearly a big concern (The latter was a “disaster”, just like it probably is for most young people making good money on their first “career” job.  Gotta have the toys, right?).

The Impact on Your Social Life

My family, friends, coworkers were all very comforting and their thoughts and prayers are what helped me get through a majority of the time.  There are times, however, when you can see it in their faces that they think you are dying.  They see that you have lost weight, or you look pale, weak and tired, and have to lie down.  They’re trying their best to be there for you and help.  But you can still see it in their faces.

You wish you could just take away all of what they’re feeling for you. When your battling a serious health issue you don’t want to see the “dying look”, but it’s a natural reaction.  I wish that I’d been better at conveying to everyone that I understood and I didn’t take offense to it.

I wish I’d been better at helping them understand that joking with me, smiling, and laughing—you know, firefighter behaviors!—was just as powerful a medicine as the drugs I was receiving for my cancer.  I wish that I could have let my family, friends and colleagues with the fire department know what a positive influence it was to have them visit or call or text me.  Those acts of kindness were always appreciated, and you can never get too many of them.  They made the days go by faster and it helped me to better appreciate how much people really cared.

Sometimes our friends and coworkers have a hard time visiting because they personally can’t handle seeing you that way.  Perhaps they are scared that’s what happening to you might happen to them or that they might “catch it.”  Sounds silly, doesn’t it?  Reality bites and it bites hard…so you can’t really blame them, but you try to understand.

So what can you do as a Fire and EMS leader and manager?  I have many ideas on the topic based on my experiences, but you’ll have to “stay tuned” for the next installment in this series (Sorry for the “teaser”, but Robert only gives me so much space for each column!)

About Robin Lawson

Robin Lawson
Robin Lawson medically retired from the Las Vegas (NV) Fire Department in 2006 after 14 years on the job. She is a two-time breast cancer survivor and the first woman firefighter in the USA to win a breast cancer worker’s compensation case related to the job of a firefighter following a six-year journey through the legal system in Nevada. Ms. Lawson now makes her home in the Orange County, California area and works to help educate firefighters, particularly women, on the dangers of cancer on the job.