Requirements and Retirement: A Guide for Federal Firefighters

Federal firefighters have different retirement rules than most other federal employees under FERS.

Part 1 in a 3-part series on federal employees who occupy “rigorous” positions and are subject to “special provisions.” The first job we’ll focus on is Federal Firefighters. 

Federal firefighters are employees of the US Government who work primarily with the control and extinguishment of fires. The demanding nature of the work means there are age, physical, and medical requirements that are not needed for your typical civilian occupation at a federal agency. 

Regarding the age requisites, firefighters under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) or Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) have a mandatory retirement age. The retirement calculation has therefore been modified with “special provisions” to accommodate for the limited time they are allowed in the occupation. 

In this article, we’ll be looking at what agencies employ federal firefighters, what requirements are needed when considering one of these jobs, and of course, what these individuals need to be aware of when it comes to their early retirement. 

Firefighting for the US Government directly is pretty different from working in the field for a municipal government, whether it be state, county, or local. 

The first thing many federal firefighters would note is the contrast between hours and pay. Their municipal counterparts work an average of 42 to 56 hours per week, while the federal folks work 72-hour weeks and their pay structure is rigid, only adjustable through an act from the executive or legislative branch. 

On the other hand, smaller municipal governments are able to adjust pay much more easily, thereby allowing them to remain competitive and to keep up with Cost-of-Living standards. 

What Agencies Hire Firefighters?

While wildland firefighters have been receiving recent attention due to raging forest fires out west and their reception of a bonus from the President, there are numerous other tasks that firefighters tackle for the government. A lot of firefighters, as you may imagine, are needed in branches of the military and at the DoD. The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Homeland Security also employ them. 

Wildland firefighters are more often associated with agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Forest Service. At the start of June, the Forest Service had 90% of these available jobs occupied, but noted in states where it was low, the numbers were really low, sometimes with less than 50% of needed firefighter positions left empty. 

Through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, firefighters are sometimes “loaned” to other agencies for temporary assignments. For example, the US Fire Administration (USFA), a subagency of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) based in Emmitsburg, MD, sometimes needs fire chiefs and similar individuals for training and education purposes. 

Requirements for Federal Firefighter Jobs 

There are physical, medical, and educational requirements for attaining a firefighting occupation with the federal government. 

Basic requirements include a high school diploma, US citizenship, and First Aid and CPR certification. Along with a course on wilderness survival, completion of college courses on both fire behavior and safety training is obligatory. If employed by a military branch, the college courses are not needed, but similar training provided by the Department of Defense is. 

Medical Requirements basically entail not having a serious, debilitating, or life-threatening condition in the lungs, heart, spine, or neurological system, and not only does a firefighter need to have all 10 fingers and all 10 toes, but he or she needs to be able to use them. 20/30 vision or better is needed, along with successfully passing a hearing test and an examination of the ear, nose, and throat. 

Waivers can be granted depending on the medical condition so long as sufficient evidence is provided that the individuals are able to perform the job duties, without accommodation, and without the risk of injuring themselves or others.

Physical Requirements are essential to be “physically vigorous.” This is apparently proven by walking three miles nonstop with a forty-five-pound backpack. 

There are annual tests conducted to ensure federal firefighters are still healthy and fit enough to complete their missions. If an annual test is failed, and the person is not eligible for their retirement annuity, a notice is issued to let them know their previous retirement contributions to FERS will be refunded. Contributions made after the issuance, should there be any, are 1% instead of 1.5%, which would’ve been the contribution rate prior to the medical or physical ineligibility notice.

Special Provisions: Mandatory Retirement 

60 days before firefighters’ 57th birthdays, they should receive a notice of their impending retirement. Here’s what these federal employees need to know about retirement requirements, FERS or CSRS calculations, and the Special Retirement Supplement (SRS). 

The last date a CSRS employee could’ve been hired was December 31, 1983. If a person hired on that date was 18 at the time, they would be about 56 in 2022. The Mandatory Retirement Age (MRA) for federal firefighters is 57. So, there could be federal firefighters out there under CSRS or CSRS-offset. If they exist, they certainly meet the age and service requirements for retirement. Their pension calculation would be: 

1.7% of the high-3 salary + (2% of the high-3 x year of service over 20 years) 

For information about the high-3 average salary calculation, check out this article.

CSRS and CSRS-offset firefighters can get an exception from their agencies to work past the age of 60, but it would require an agency secretary to make a formal request to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), who would have to receive and approve it at least 120 days before mandatory retirement kicks in. 

For FERS employees, only an executive order from the President could allow a federal firefighter to work beyond age 57, and OPM is not involved in such a decision at all. Because mandatory retirements are considered neither an adverse nor removable action, they cannot be formally appealed in those cases. 

Eligibility to start receiving retirement income from a FERS annuity is based on the following age and service length:

  • Age 50 with 20 years of service
  • Any age with 25 years of service 

FERS employees under special provisions contribute 0.5% more to their pension annuity than your typical civilian federal employee under the same retirement system. The payoff for this is that they get to use a 1.7% multiplier in their calculation, which is 0.7% to .06% more than FERS employees not under special provisions. 

Here is the FERS calculation for federal firefighters:

1.7% of high-3 average salary x 20 years of service + (1% of high-3 average x number of years and months over 20 years of service) 

If you take a different position in the federal government after mandatory retirement, you can still use the 1.7% in your calculation as long as you take an immediate annuity upon retirement. However, if you take a different position that is not under special provisions and then choose to defer your FERS pension when leaving service, that whole deferred annuity will be calculated with the 1% multiplier – not 1.7%. 

The Special Retirement Supplement (SRS)

The SRS was designed as a Social Security supplement, specifically for feds who are under special provisions. Here is how it is calculated: 

  • Take your latest Social Security benefit estimate for age 62 
  • Multiply that by the number of years of service under FERS (if not a whole number, round up)
  • Divide that by 40. 

If you retire before reaching your MRA (age 57), then the SRS is not subject to the earnings test, which can reduce the income received from the SRS. The earnings test does apply after reaching the MRA, though.

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About the Author

Benjamin Derge is a Financial Planner and Chartered Federal Employee Benefits Consultant, (ChFEBC℠), as well as a Writer and Editor for Serving Those Who Serve, a financial firm that specializes in helping federal employees with their benefits.