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Should There be a Mandatory Retirement Age for Volunteer Firefighters?

By Joe Maruca

Early this year, two volunteer firefighters in their 80s died in the line-of-duty. Their deaths should start a discussion that many firefighters and fire chiefs find difficult to have in a calm and professional manner: Should a volunteer firefighter retire, and should there be a mandatory retirement age for volunteers?

Some advocate there should be a bright-line retirement age for volunteers just as there is generally a mandatory retirement age for career firefighters. No states that I’m aware of have a law requiring volunteer firefighters to retire at any particular age. Here in Massachusetts and other states, career firefighters must retire at age 65 and many fire chiefs advocate that the age 65 mandatory retirement should apply to volunteers. (There are legal grey areas about how and if the career mandatory retirement age applies to paid-on-call or call firefighters verses volunteers, but that’s a discussion for a law journal.) One argument put forth is that if career firefighters must retire at age 65 why shouldn’t volunteer firefighters be required to do the same. Another argument is more direct to the issue and it says that firefighting requires its participants to be in good physical condition, and that people over age 65 simply aren’t in good enough physical condition to fight fires.

Those who advocate for allowing volunteer firefighters to continue firefighting past their 65th birthday will counter by saying that the 65 retirement age was mandated by retirement systems and is based upon pension system needs, not whether or not people can physically continue to serve as firefighters at that age. They also tend to point to the need to use older volunteers because of a lack of younger volunteers, or because they can’t afford to lose the experience those older volunteers bring to their younger volunteers. This need is typically based upon the fact that in many small towns there isn’t a large population base of younger people to draw volunteers from, that in many rural/suburban parts of the country the population is aging and these communities have older populations than they did in the past, and that in commuting suburbs retirees are the only people available to volunteer during daytime hours.

Further lurking as a trap for the unwary community or fire chief that sets a mandatory retirement age for volunteer firefighters is the risk of an age discrimination suit. I believe that the risk of this type of lawsuit being successful is low, given that mandatory retirement ages for career firefighters and police officers have been upheld in some federal and state courts. However, with fifty different state anti-age discrimination laws and a federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) that is constantly being re-interpreted, you need to be aware that some risk does exist. This risk is probably highest in those states that have some type of Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP). In a LOSAP state a volunteer that is forced into retirement but still has a few more years of service to qualify for an award or to qualify for a higher award might get some traction with a lawsuit.

Here’s where I stand: Except in the case where a department gives annual NFPA 1582 medical exams to its staff, I don’t believe that we should be using persons over 65 as firefighters, but I do believe that persons over age 65 can remain active members of fire departments in certain non-firefighting capacities.

If you are over 60, you should be planning for your retirement and if you are 65 or over you ought to be hanging up your helmet and finding another way to serve with your fire department. Firefighters over age 60 make up about 6% of the country’s firefighting force. In 2009, 15 firefighters over age 61 died in the line of duty representing 17% of all line-of-duty deaths. Statistically, firefighters over age 61 die in the line of duty at a rate of almost three times their representation in the service. And, I think we can all guess what killed two-thirds of those over age 60 firefighters: Heart Attacks. While heart attacks are responsible for about half of all line-of-duty firefighter deaths, they are responsible for two-thirds of all deaths of over age 61 firefighters. Older firefighters, their chiefs, and their departments need to face up to the fact that older firefighters are at a significantly higher risk of line-of-duty death than firefighters under age 61. (The national data is organized around ages 60 and 61.)

If you are over age 65, or nearing age 65, do your chief a favor and make your chief’s job a little easier. Don’t place him or her in the position of having to tell you it’s time to pass the nozzle to the younger generation. Be proactive and tell your chief you know it’s time to ease up. Make suggestions about how you might serve the department without being a firefighter. One person in my department recently did this and serves as Chief’s Aide.

If you’re a chief and you have members over age 60 and nearing age 65, you need to make an informed decision about how much risk you, your community, and your firefighters are willing to take. You need to discuss this with your elected officials, municipal manager, insurance company, officers, and firefighters, and come to a decision based upon facts, the needs of your community, and the level of risk that is acceptable. As fire chief you need to make a clear informed recommendation to your community.

Also, read your department’s insurance policy and see what, if any, limitations it has for covering older firefighters.

So how should we handle older firefighters? In a perfect world we would give all of our firefighters an NFPA 1582 compliant medical exam every year to determine their fitness for duty. If we did this, we wouldn’t need an arbitrary age limit. I recommend that if you decide to allow persons over age 65 to be firefighters, then you should give them an NFPA 1582 medical exam each year. Unfortunately, many communities lack the funds or fail to accept the concept of annual medical exams and this isn’t going to be the typical approach to this issue.

If you lack the funds to give your firefighters annual NFPA medical exams or they can’t pass an annual NFPA medical exam, then you need to find another role for firefighters over age 65. Use them as training coordinators. Let them serve in emergency management roles or as administrative officers. Make them the chief’s aide. They may be able to serve as EMS providers. There aren’t many volunteer or small combination fire departments that are so well staffed that they couldn’t find non-firefighting roles for these experienced members. Look at all the planning, logistical, and support positions within the incident command system at a fire, flood, or other major event, and start using non-firefighters to fill some of those roles so you don’t have to strip your engine and ladder companies of all your fire officers to do support work. Make an over-age-65 member your public-information officer or communications chief.

If you do use over-age-65 staff for non-firefighting positions, don’t use it is a pretext to let them continue firefighting. Take their structural PPE away, and instead give them a reflective traffic safety or EMS jacket to wear. Their helmet shield should say something other than firefighter, such as aide, PIO or auxiliary. You must have a written job description that says what they do and what they are not allowed to do. Some chiefs have suggested they want to use over-age-65 firefighters as apparatus driver/operators. I would recommend against this practice since driving and operating fire apparatus is such a significant part of a firefighter’s job that it converts them back to firefighters.

As fire chief, you also have an obligation to plan for replacing retiring firefighters. You need a succession plan and to start planning when your firefighter turns age 60 not age 65, as it can take three to five years to replace an experienced and active volunteer. Alert your community to the need for younger volunteers to replace those getting into their 60’s. Make your department welcoming to new and younger members.

In retirement communities or in communities with higher than average ages where you are more reliant on older volunteers, you need to develop strategies, tactics, and guidelines to limit your risk. You need to educate your community about how the age of your firefighters may limit your capabilities.

If you are a volunteer firefighter, you have an obligation to do what’s best for your community. While you might feel you are still fit for firefighting at age 65 and while you might want to continue firefighting, you must realize that the decision isn’t just about you. You must be willing to accept that the decision about your continued firefighting is a complex risk-benefit analysis that your community (chief, elected officials, legal counsel, fellow firefighters, and the public) must make as a consensus. Be a pro-active and be a cooperative part of that process. If the community concludes that it is best to retire you from firefighting, then step-up and start a Junior Firefighter Program and start training your legacy.

Joe Maruca is an attorney and chief of the West Barnstable Massachusetts Fire Department. He serves as Massachusetts Alternate Delegate to the National Volunteer Fire Council and as a member of the NFPA 1917 Technical Committee on Ambulances. He is also legislative representative and legal counsel for the Massachusetts Call/Volunteer Firefighters Association, as well as chair of the MCVFA’s SAFER Grant Committee.

This article was adapted from
Smoke Showin’, the quarterly publication of the Massachusetts Call/Volunteer Firefighters Association.