Stop, Drop, and Roll: The Privileged Economic Position of Firefighters
By Brian Strow
“Average firefighter pay is even higher than police officer pay in cities and states that mandate parity.”
Firefighters are popular. The annual Harris-Interactive Poll of Prestigious Occupations routinely ranks firefighters as the most prestigious occupation in the country.1 This year, when Ohio’s public-sector unions wished to protest limits on collective-bargaining powers for government employees, they used firefighters, rather than teachers, in their advertisements.2 They did so not only because of the prestige associated with firefighting, but also because Ohio’s firefighters are more likely to be registered as Republicans than as Democrats. Even Republicans have trouble not advocating more pay for Republicans. Firefighters are known, in part, for their bravery. But they also tend to be smart—after all, they have parlayed their across-the-board popularity into above-market compensation under the guise of public safety.
Many cities across the country subscribe to the concept of “public safety pay parity.” From Atlanta to Dallas to New York City and San Francisco (and many cities in between), firefighters have effectively lobbied city and state governments to pay them the same as police officers. But the labor markets for firefighters and police officers are no more alike than the labor markets for engineering professors and history professors. Colleges that would mandate equal pay for history and engineering professors would end up with history professors from top-ranked schools but would have trouble filling the engineering positions. Though both groups are professors, teaching history and teaching engineering attract two very different groups of people with different opportunity costs. Engineers have much better opportunities outside of academia.
While both police work and firefighting can be described as providing public safety, the jobs are very different. Not only are firefighters held in more public esteem than police officers, but they also report the third-highest level of job satisfaction among all occupations (behind only clergy and physical therapists).3 Firefighters are popular, typically enjoy what they do, and have much safer jobs than police officers. Nationwide (because some cities do not mandate public-sector pay parity), police officers earn more than firefighters, but they report lower job satisfaction and face more than twice the likelihood of dying on the job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)4 reports the average pay and fatality rate of different industries. Table 1 reveals that both police officers and firefighters are more richly compensated for their probability of death on the job than are workers in much riskier, private-sector jobs. It also reports that benefits are 1.7 times as high for public-sector workers as for their private-sector counterparts.
|Occupation||Fatality Rate per 100,000||Mean Salary|
|Police and Sheriff’s Patrol Officers||16||$55,670|
|Driver/Sales Workers and Truck Drivers||21.8||$40,410|
|Refuse and Recycling Collectors||29.8||$34,310|
|Mining Machine Operators||38.7||$44,010|
|Miscellaneous Extraction Workers||64.2||$43,870|
|Pilots and Flight Engineers||70.6||$115,300|
|Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics|
In cities that peg firefighter salaries to police officer salaries, firefighters are overpaid relative to police officers. This often causes a large surplus of prospective firefighters and a high turnover rate for police officers. Increasing police officers’ salaries to prevent high turnover rates is very expensive when doing so requires giving every firefighter a raise. The parity problem is exacerbated by the fact that there are a higher number of promotable positions in a typical fire department as compared to a typical police department. As a result, average firefighter pay is even higher than police officer pay in cities and states that mandate parity. Few firefighters ever quit their above-market-paying jobs and can often retire with full benefits after 20 years of service. This leaves cities to pay defined retirement benefits for people in their 40s and 50s for the rest of their lives.
In addition to their higher “parity” pay, most firefighters work a 24-hours-on, 48-hours-off schedule. This schedule allows many of them to hold a second job (unlike police officers, who work a standard shift). Firefighters expressly prefer this schedule to a shift schedule. In August 2011, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that cities in Kentucky must provide back overtime pay to firefighters who were paid supplemental training salaries. Kentucky’s state government provides supplemental training salaries to firefighters on top of their local salaries. Rather than have the supplemental payments viewed as a salary (which had been the standard for years), the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that the supplemental pay had to be broken down into hourly earnings on which cities have to pay overtime when a firefighter works a 24-hours-on, 48-hours-off schedule. The same firefighters who express preference for the 24-hours-on, 48-hours-off schedule sued for “overtime” pay for the working conditions “imposed” upon them. This cost Kentucky cities $25 million in back pay to firefighters.5
My experience as a city commissioner in Bowling Green, Kentucky brought me face to face with the political practices of firefighters. When I began on the city commission in 2005, many firefighters (and other city employees) paid $0 for platinum family health-care coverage. At the time, the city manager commissioned a pay study to show that employees needed a raise. The previous city commission had raised the local occupational tax (a tax on wages earned within the city) by 33% and the city manager wanted to justify his higher proposed spending levels. The employees were allowed to pick their own peer cities for comparison and chose large cities such as Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky, along with Franklin and Germantown, Tennessee, wealthy suburbs of Nashville and Memphis, respectively. They wanted to be paid the same as government employees in these cities.
Oddly, when including Bowling Green’s benefits package, city employees were already compensated more than were public employees in most cities in the selected peer group. When I suggested that an analysis of benefits be included in the pay study, there was a large outcry from employees. They wanted the same pay as people in larger, richer cities and better benefits. They wanted absolutely no discussion about comparing city employees’ compensation packages and those of local private-sector workers. No group of city employees in Bowling Green seemed to publicly push harder for raises than did the Bowling Green firefighters.
In Bowling Green, there is a direct tax on fire insurance companies. Seven percent of insurance premiums are placed in a Fire Improvement Fund that can legally be used only for fire equipment. In fact, a former Chief Financial Officer of Bowling Green embezzled more than $4 million from the fire improvement fund without anyone noticing for 20 years,6 because there was so much money sitting in the account. Even with the embezzlement, the city was able to build new firehouses, acquire new costly equipment on a regular basis, and create a city-wide public safety wireless network. Like Richard Pryor in Brewster’s Millions (1985), the city had trouble spending all of its money.
As Fred McChesney discusses,7 being first responder to a traffic accident with an expensive ladder truck is not an optimal use of public safety spending. Ladders have no use at traffic accidents, and these trucks can cost more than a million dollars each.8 Firemen have become first responders in many cities to justify their existence. The expansion of firefighting positions has increased, even as the number of structure fires has fallen. Between 1980 and 1997 alone, the United States saw a 33% reduction in structure fires.9 Further, as the National Fire Protection Association has increased the minimum criteria for the effectiveness and efficiency of emergency operations, cities have been compelled to hire and train more firefighters. The National Fire Protection Association is comprised of more than 80 national trade and professional organizations, all with an interest in reducing the burden of fire (injury, death, property loss, and insecurity).10
Any group whose goal is to reduce something without regard to cost will act as if the optimal amount of the thing being reduced is zero. Economic analysis shows that the optimal (or efficient) amount of fire safety is achieved when the marginal benefit of an additional dollar spent on fire safety is equal to the marginal cost of doing so. As an economics professor, I could argue that a positive marginal benefit would exist from making everyone in the world take an economics class. However, this is efficient only if the marginal benefit of taking the class exceeds the marginal cost of doing so. Unfortunately, efficiency is often disregarded during emotional discussions of public safety.
Public safety providers generally, and firefighters specifically, have been able to leverage the public’s good will into above-market compensation for years. If getting paid were merely a popularity contest, cheerleaders and firefighters would always be well paid. Unlike cheerleaders, whose mean hourly wage is $18.6011 with little full-time work available, firefighters have been able to take their popularity to the bank. Perhaps firefighters are so happy because they have been able to leverage their popularity into above-market wages and benefits in a field that carries so many positive psychic benefits. They can fleece taxpayers, while leaving them begging for more. They have perfected “stop, drop, and roll”: They get taxpayers to stop buying things they need, drop large amounts of money on “public safety,” and roll the Benjamins into their bank accounts. It is no wonder we respect firefighters so much.
Prestige of 23 professions and occupations. MC Marketing Charts, based on data from Harris Interactive.
Strieber, Andrew. “Whistling While You Work: The 10 Most Satisfying Careers.” CareerCast.
Gaines, Jim. “Cooper Still in Debt to the City” (2009, June 29). Bowling Green Daily News.
Erdman, Ann. 2001. Community Invited to Dedication of New Ladder Truck at Fire Station 32. The City of Pasadena.
Leovy, Jill. “No Longer a Burning Issue”. (1998, October 8). Los Angeles Times.