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Are Firefighters Overpaid?


There are a lot of headlines these days about firefighters making up to $350,000 per year.  Other headlines show that amount to frequently be over $250,000.  With everyone scrimping these days to get by, headlines like this raise a lot of questions. Here are a few answers.

First off, I am sorry to say that in a thirty year career I never made anywhere close to those numbers.  Working in a somewhat affluent suburb of a large city, my position was what most would consider middle management.  I was a company officer that also had several technical assignments, worked every hour of overtime I could find, and still never combined to make even half of those amounts.  I loved my job, but it didn’t make me rich.

If you read the report about the $350,000 salary, you will see that those numbers don’t really have anything to do with the amount of money that firefighter took home to feed his family. They added dollars that were going to pay for insurance, pension, and overtime.  How many other salary reports include those additions?  They are certainly costs related to the expenses of paying for firefighters but they are added to make a headline.  We see way too much of that done these days by the media.

Many departments these days have decided to stop hiring firefighters so that they aren’t faced with reducing manpower later if finances get worse.  Many times it is cheaper to pay a firefighter overtime instead of paying extra insurance premiums, costs of bunker gear, and adding another pension liability.  Benefits usually cost 35 to 50 percent additional for a firefighter.  Those additions are similar for police officers, school teachers, and many other employees.  If you want to find some benefits that are out of control, check out what your government officials get.

There are a few things about firefighters benefits that people need to understand.  Firefighters contribute every pay day to fund their pensions.  I contributed over 9% of my salary for 30 years to qualify for a pension.  For those that think we get free insurance, sorry you are wrong.  I paid a percentage of my health insurance coverage every year, and now that I am retired I get to pay the entire 100% of my health insurance premium.  17% of my after-tax pension goes to pay for a crappy insurance policy with $5000 deductible.

Another thing that gets under my skin is when people complain that firefighters get free time, and get to sleep at work.   Free time means we get to stay in the fire station on Saturday morning while the rest of the world goes fishing, to their kids soccer game, or maybe you took off and went away for the weekend with your wife.  We aren’t really free during free time, we get interrupted quite a bit.  When we do sleep at the station it isn’t like sleeping at home.  Instead of being next to your wife, we are in a bunk room with a bunch of guys that haven’t showered in a day that all snore and make various noises while they sleep. Not very restful.

Firefighters are not overpaid.  There is really no way to measure what is overpaid.  Should the guy emptying the garbage at McDonalds make more money, or should the CEO of Microsoft make less?  At the end of a firefighting career, most will say they were paid fairly somewhere in between those the McDonalds guy and the CEO.  We earn our salary, just like everyone else.

By John Morse

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