From Heroes to Zeros?

Firefighters are under attack these days like never before in recent history. These attacks are in the form of pay and benefit decreases, staffing cuts, station closures and threats to eliminate entire departments and replace them with private contractors or other non-publicly funded entities. In my area we have seen all of those to a certain extent but the one that has become a public hot-button is the pension reform. This one issue has become the rallying cry to vilify firefighters in the public’s eye.

My area is a little different than some others as far as how the pensions are conducted. Both the employer and the employee contribute to the pension and it is administered by a board made up of both the current administration and employees and retired members. To my understanding this is not the case across the country. Some firefighters contribute nothing of their own wages to their pensions and the local government (and taxpayers) shoulder the entire burden. I cannot comment on those systems since I am not familiar with their operations or the in’s and out’s of their legal responsibilities. I am not even an expert on my own system but I do feel qualified to offer some insight.

Nearly every year in those polls that are conducted about the most respected professions in the U.S. firefighter is at least in the top-ten. Almost everyone respects the job that we do and views it as a necessary and honorable profession. When it comes to paying for the services we render in the form of taxes, however, people seem to back off a little from the glowing perception we enjoy. No one wants to pay higher taxes, myself included. However, there are certain things I want to see my tax monies go to and ones which I do not. Fire and EMS services, police services and basic city services are at the top of the list. Providing a pension, all-inclusive health care, expensive vehicles and trips for mayors, village managers, trustees etc. etc. is not. “Wait a minute, Hallway,” you might be saying to yourself. “You’re postulating on pensions and you’re criticizing our elected officials for having one?” You betcha I say, and here’s why. One local example should suffice.

I work for a fire protection district. For those of you that may not be familiar with this particular form of fire protection, a fire protection district is a separate government entity from any village, town or city. We levy our own taxes which are collected by the county in which we reside and are then distributed to be used entirely by the fire protection district i.e. not split amongst public works, police etc. etc. Well, my department takes in right around $10 million in taxes a year, which makes up our operating budget. Every cent of that $10-mil goes to serve our citizens and provide top-notch fire and EMS services. Recently, our esteemed Mayor was quoted in a local news publication as saying that, “the firemen and police pensions are killing [our cities name here].” He went on to say how sweeping pension reforms are needed and basically stated that police officers and firefighters are overpaid and overcompensated for the years of service they provide. Really, Mr. Mayor? He conveniently forgets to tell the reporter that he is a retired school principal who receives a pension and full medical benefits for life from the School District, receives a fairly generous salary and medical package from the village for serving as a part-time mayor, and oh, by the way, our village does not pay anything to the firefighter’s pension fund or anything else to do with the FD because as I stated before, we’re not part of the village. It’s these kinds of inaccuracies and, in my humble opinion, conscious twisting of the facts that has lead to a public that now is anti-fireman.

I was recently standing in a local establishment waiting for some of my shift-mates. We had decided to get together for a little holiday celebration. I was the first to arrive and was standing along a wall waiting for a table or bar stool to open up. I was standing next to a table of five or six people in their mid-fifties, I would guess. I wasn’t paying much attention to their conversation as I was engrossed in the pitiful performance by our local hockey team on the TV’s around the bar. I wasn’t listening, that is, until I heard a woman in the group say, “and then there’s these firefighters.” I half-turned and immediately perked up my ears. There were general grumblings and head-nodding amongst her companions in response to her comment. She went on to say, “I don’t know any other job where you can make $100,000 a year, retire from one place, go get another $100,000-a-year job someplace else and have a pension from both places! That’s why we’re paying such high taxes!” I was as red as our hockey team’s sweaters and actually took half a step toward their table to introduce myself and set them straight before I stopped. I made a choice not to get involved. I guess I did it because I was alone and, in some way, I didn’t know if a firefighter confronting them in a bar was the best way to portray our profession. Maybe I should have and taken the opportunity to educate them, maybe it was a missed opportunity. Maybe it was lucky and the tales they would have spun to others at a later date would have been twisted and portrayed us even worse. I don’t know and never will. But, had I chosen to confront them, here’s what I would have said.

A-hem. “Excuse me, ma’am. I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation and thought maybe I could offer some insight. My name’s Hallway Sledge and I’m a firefighter/paramedic. As far as the $100,000 a year salary and transferring it to other departments and making multiple pensions, well, that’s just wrong. No firefighter I know makes $100,000 a year base-salary. If you want to talk total compensation package figures or base-salary plus overtime, that’s one thing, but none of us take home $100,000 a year. It sounds to me like you are talking about fire chiefs. Fire chiefs, you see, are essentially independent contractors who sign individual contracts with their cities or Boards of Trustees. If their contract is terminated or they simply choose to retire from one department to pursue a job at another department they negotiate another contract. Depending on how long they stay at each job they may actually receive a pension from multiple departments. For the record, I disagree with this and am just as frustrated as you over this particular issue.” I would then pause to take a drink of my courage-juice and to lubricate my throat.

“Now, as far as our pensions go,” I would have continued. “I’m not sure if you are aware of this or not but we contribute part of our salaries to our pensions. You are not on the hook for all of it. Many of our departments also offer deferred comp programs or other types of savings programs for us to supplement our pensions. All the money that goes into those programs are taken from our salaries and are not matched (for the most-part) by the fire department itself. We currently have to work to age 50 and for 30 years to reach our maximum pay-benefit, which is 75% of our last annual salary. There’s a very good reason for that.” I would then expound on the death statistics in firefighting with emphasis on the heart attacks, strokes and other medical causes. “So, simply from  a physical stand-point, there are not a lot of 60 year-old firefighters. As you get older this job gets exponentially more difficult. ” Pause, more courage-juice, answer any lame questions or counter-points, continue.

“Now, as far as the under-funding that everyone is talking about. I would like to point out that nearly 15 years ago the state union that represents all unionized firefighters here in [glorious name of the state I live and work in] warned the municipalities and districts that the current (at that time) trend of under-funding the police and fire pensions so that the municipalities could have more money available for parks and trees and streets and other projects was unsustainable and would eventually lead to a large deficit. The union was laughed-off and actuary reports were waved and heralded. Actuary reports that were overstated and took the best-possible figures instead of a middle-of-the-road stance or even a more conservative stance. The mayors and village boards and trustees across our great [gag] state continued to underfund the pensions and use that “extra” money for other projects. Now, with a state law looming in the next couple years that pension funds must have a minimum percentage fully funded these same mayors and managers are portraying the firefighters as greedy, self-serving mizers who just don’t understand the plight of the village/city/town in these tough economic times!” Pause for dramatic effect. “Bulls***! I cry!” Oops, too much courage-juice. “They’re only telling you part of the story while they collect their salaries for part-time jobs of running your town and collect pensions for the same and receive full medical coverage for life. What?!?!?! You didn’t know that?!?!?! Seems you’re not so well informed after all!” Slam down empty courage-juice glass for effect. Bow, take loud-mouthed lady’s hand and kiss it, walk away stage right.

And that, folks, is the rest of the story. Adage to Paul Harvey.

Stay safe!

Hallway Sledge

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