The Truth About Firefighter Retirement Benefits
Firefighters retire earlier, and earn a higher percentage of their salary in retirement than most other professions. There are many factors that contribute to this enhanced retirement benefit. Here are some facts that tend to be "overlooked" in reports on firefighter retirements, salaries and benefits:
1. Firefighters and other public employees do NOT receive Social Security. This is a cost savings to the cities and counties that employ firefighters, but retired firefighters can't collect this benefit that is available to almost all other Americans. The lack of Social Security benefits and the payroll savings to local government is rarely mentioned in discussions about public employee benefits.
2. Firefighters work a 56 or 72 hour work week - Atleast 40% more hours than the average worker. They work 24 to 72 hour shifts, and respond to emergencies at any hour, night or day, 365 days per year - even on holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving when virtually no one else is working. Because of this, their hourly wages are relatively low for a skilled profession.
3. Firefighters have shorter life expectancies than the average population and are three times more likely to die on the job, due to inherent risks, physical and mental stresses, and exposures to toxic and carcinogenic compounds released in smoke. (source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics, University of Cincinnati).
4. Like the rest of the population, aging firefighters are at significantly higher risk of injury and illness - it is a young person's profession. Due to the extremely strenuous nature of the job (with little or no "warm up time,") firefighters suffer higher rates of disabling occupational injury . The older the firefighter, the more likely these injuries become, and recovery times (and cost) increase. These injuries are expensive to taxpayers and firefighters, decreasing quality of life and requiring expensive treatment, overtime pay to replace the injured worker which stresses already low staffing levels. Relatively low minimum retirement ages are a recognition of these factors above all else (much more so than the more widely reported life expectancy issue).
5. When firefighters negotiate for enhanced retirement benefits (in recognition of the above factors) other potential benefits or salary enhancements are given up. This is the nature of collective bargaining. The cost to a city or municipality is no higher than if a comparable salary increase were negotiated in place of retirement benefits.
6. Firefighter jobs have become significantly more complex and technical over the past 30 years, with the additional responsibilities and training for Hazardous Materials Response, Emergency Medical Services, Homeland Security, Fire Prevention, Public Education and more. In return for providing more and better services to the community, firefighters negotiated for improved benefits and salaries, though their compensation has not risen as fast as other technical or dangerous jobs in the private sector.
7. Firefighters across the country tend to make up for their relatively low hourly wages by working overtime in addition to their already long work-week. During the summer months, firefighters are often gone from their families, working extra 12-24 hour shifts. While the extra pay is necessary to support a family, few firefighters would choose to spend such long periods doing the risky business of firefighting or long shifts without rest.