‘The Hammer’: 63-year-old B.C. firefighter fights back after forced retirement

Steve Mertl
March 20, 2013

As a fellow aging Baby Boomer, I sympathize with Russell Shellard, the 63-year-old B.C. firefighter battling forced retirement.

Shellard is taking the Chilliwack Fire Department before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal to challenge the city's mandatory retirement age of 60 for firefighters.

According to the Chilliwack Times, the tribunal has just refused to toss out the complaint, originally filed about a year ago.

Maybe it's a Boomer conceit. Despite all that now-laughable talk of "freedom 55," most of us apparently don't see ourselves golfing or gardening into our dotage. We want to be useful and feel young.

That's Shellard's story, apparently. The National Post reports he'd had a satisfying career as a social worker working mostly with kids until at age 56 he decided to embark on a second career as a firefighter.

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Shellard was perhaps the oldest recruit ever to apply but he passed all the necessary fitness tests, apparently besting recruits half his age, the Post said. A year later he was hired as a paid-on-call firefighter.

The Chilliwack Fire Department augments its 29 full-time firefighters with 130 on-call members who are paid an hourly wage when working and must attend regular training sessions.

The web page to recruit paid-on-call firefighters says nothing about a maximum age. It says you can't have a beard, no phobias about heights (let's me out) or working in confined spaces and be available to work year-round on an on-call basis.

By all accounts, Shellard was an exemplary firefighter, showing no hesitation to enter a burning building and do the heavy work the job requires, the Post said. His toughness earned him the nickname "The Hammer."

"No one ever hesitated going into a burning building with me," he said.

Shellard said on-call firefighters can decide not to respond to a call-in notification but he never did. He had no trouble keeping up with his younger colleagues, he said.

He claimed he was not told of the mandatory retirement age when he signed up and when he reached aged 60 three years ago, he received an extension.

But last year, despite his fitness level and excellent record, the department forced him to retire, prompting the age-discrimination complaint.

"The most recent research into firefighters' health issues and fatalities has reinforced our convictions that our existing retirement policy is sound," Fire Chief Rick Ryall said in a letter to Shellard, according to the Times.

"Our decision concerning your request is not based on your personal attributes as a firefighter or your past service with the Chilliwack Fire Department, but rather is a policy decision meant to protect the safety of all suppression firefighters."

The department said it had no complaint about Shellard's performance but that it had to draw the line somewhere, the Post said. The older firefighters get, the more likely they are to die on the job.

Documents filed by the department with the tribunal said a "significant portion" of all firefighter deaths were connected with heart problems, the Post reported.

Firefighters must don gear weighing almost 60 pounds and be able to climb ladders, haul heavy hoses and carry people out of burning buildings under stressful conditions.

"Cardiac events have consistently, over a period from 2002 to 2011, resulted in more firefighter deaths than any other cause and, in fact, account for between 40 and 50 per cent of all fatalities suffered by firefighters in that time frame," the department argued in its evidence.

Shellard responded by undergoing a series of medical tests to demonstrate his heart is in good shape, the Post said. He workes out daily and before his retirement even competed in the international Firefighter Combat Challenge.

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The Chilliwack Times said Ryall argued that paid-on-call firefighters were at higher risk than their full-time colleagues because they can be paged at any time and must quickly spring into action.

Shellard is certainly not alone in being a grizzled smoke-eater. Last April, 78-year-old Bill Hickman, thought to be the oldest non-volunteer U.S. firefighter, retired after 48 years working at Pantex, which builds nuclear weapons for the U.S. military.

And in 2011, 77-year-old Billy-Gene Holder retired as a captain in the fire department of Irving, Tex., near Dallas/Fort Worth, according to CBS 11 News. Despite his age, Holder still passed the firefighter's endurance test.

"Takes me six more seconds than it does a rookie," he said.

In the decision to allow Shellard's complaint to go to a hearing, tribunal member Norman Trerise said that while the mandatory retirement age was adopted in good faith for a rational purpose, it's not clear if the city couldn't reasonably accommodate older firefighters through the use of testing to reduce the heart-attack risk.