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How Much Is a Firefighter Worth? NPR’s look at the closing of Contra Costa, CA firehouses sums up battle many firefighters face across the country.

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Read more about fire station closings

Fewer fires. More medical calls. Less money. Higher pension costs. Some of the factors NPR’s Planet Money cites as the reasons behind citizens failing to vote for a tax increase that could have prevented Contra Costa, California from having to close four fire stations.

Please take a moment to listen to the report titled, “How Much Is A Firefighter Worth?”. It talks a lot about the current perception the public has of firefighters and some of the reasons the firefighters failed to get the support of the community to stop the closings. Much of what you will hear is a story that firefighters all across the country can relate to. Many of you have been confronting similar situations over the last three or four years.

I am sure some of you won’t like what you hear and you may even think the reporters have parts of it wrong. But overall this idea of citizens possibly voting against their own safety in order to keep more money in their own pockets is the reality we are living with. The economy continues to shape the image of firefighters and the amount of risk to those firefighters and to their own families that the public is willing to accept.

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From Contra Costa Fire Protection District website.

Comments - Add Yours

  • Mike

    That story made me very angry listening to it, I can only imagine how bad that crew was lied to during the taping of that story so they could get them to say things to use against them.

    • dave statter

      Mike,

      That’s what you got out of it? Can you explain further? Where you there?

      You took the time to write to call someone a liar. What do you base that on?

      What did the firefighters say that will used against them?

      Is it really the messenger that’s the problem here? My experience watching the impact of the economy around the country as I do this blog is that a lot of what was reported in this story, whether I like it or not, is the reality that firefighters are forced to deal with. A public that doesn’t appreciate them, that is unwilling to pay more to keep a safe level of services and attacks from all over on their pay and pensions.

      Apparently you got something very different out of this. Do you mind explaining?

      Statter

  • 8truck

    That is the change that’s coming. Our first due area is made up mostly of modern day truss construction homes. Eventually the wiring will start to fail and things will start falling apart. The rate of fires will increase again. It’s all a cycle.

  • Johnny Awesome

    FF/EMT at my department after six years: $39,000

    A FF/Medic at Contra Costa County after six years: $90,000

    I was in the bay area last week, talked with the ff’s. We fight way more fires in the Mid-West then they do, but make less then half.

    In 2010 we had to take a cut in pay, also we had to pay into the old pension plan to take care of our retired ff’s.

    We didn’t have to cut services, close stations or cut budgets.

    The people in my city including my self will tell you a ff is worth a lot of money, but not $100,000 a year.

    • MJ

      It’s worth noting that bay area cost of living is one of the highest in the nation – and definitely significantly higher than the Midwest.

      A quick internet search on cost of living in the bay area compared to Memphis, Tennessee (not sure where you are) shows a 50% difference.

  • Robert Kramer

    Johnny not so awesome,

    Ever heard of cost of living?

  • Steve in NJ

    The report seemed (to me) to be very sarcastic and one sided in its presentation. I believe the point that Mike was making was he probably doubted that these folks from NPR told the guys on that company that were coming to “ride along” with them so they could do a radio bit that trashes the firefighters.

    • dave statter

      Sarcastic? Really? How does it trash firefighters? Just because they are reporting on an issue that didnt go the way firefighters wanted it to doesn’t mean they are being trashed. you’re making a lot of assumptions about what went down and how the story was put together. I haven’t seen any facts to back that up.

  • firedude

    Your comparison can is not relevant here. In Contra Costa county the avg median income is $75K, house median $424K. Take Milwaukee, bigger city in the Mid West,avg income $47K home value $97K. Each persons salary reflects where we live. They want us to live in the communities we work in, so pay reflects that as well.
    PS..I don’t think you pay as much as they do for pensions. They pay 26% into their pensions plus I believe around $800 a mo. for healthcare for a family. Lets pay them the wage you stated. not only will tax payers pay their wage and benies, but they will also pay for their gov’t assistance for living below poverty. Great theory.

  • tipman49

    i work in one of the largest cities on the east coast and i would have to work 40 years just to get 80 percent pension and only five years of medical after i retire, these guys out west are living the dream

    • firedude

      Yet most large cities on the East can retire 20 years after date of hire & get 50% of their salary. So get hired at 18, retire 38 then start a new career. Plus, OT is calculated into those figures. You can work a ton of OT in the final year, make $100 +K and move on. Most of us can retire at 3% @ 50. Now its 2.7 @ 57. This is what your union agreed to as did ours. How about we support each other & not start to eat each other alive by comparing what we have. Lets preserve it.
      PS, I have taken a 25% pay cut, including pension and health caree reform. My health care out of pockets have sky rocketed yet they still closed some of our companies. This is a push by higher groups to rid unions. ICMA is one group coming after all of us.

  • MJ

    Interesting story by NPR. I would generally agree that the big problem in California appears to be the pension plan.

    However, in all the conversation in this story and outside of it, folks that advocate changing the foundational structure of fire departments do not address how a major shift to primarily EMS response models will affect our ability to respond to fires. Yes that big, expensive fire engine is idling in the parking lot of the flea-bag motel. Yes, four firefighters (if we’re lucky) is probably overkill for the foot-pain medical call. We can beat the drum about how few fires there are now compared to 30 years ago, but the fact remains that fires and other complicated emergencies do still occur. In the case of fires, they are generally burning hotter, faster, and in more unstable structures than ever before. The fire will happen, and when it does it requires all that equipment – those fire engines, those ladder trucks, the personnel to staff them, and the chief officers to supervise and direct the operation.

    So, salary and pension arguments aside, what does a foundational remodel of the fire service look like? How do we have fewer fire houses, with fewer personnel, and less firefighting equipment, but still effectively mitigate the, albeit rare, fire? Much less a hazmat, tech rescue, or any other of the myriad hazards faced by today’s fire departments.

    What is the answer? In communities that desire effective fire protection at a lower cost, perhaps they should look at outsourcing their EMS and re-dedicating their fire departments to fires, rescues, and other hazards. They would lower the workload on the fire departments, cut the costs of running an EMS program, and increase in-service time of their local fire house (not an idea I would personally go for).

    I do not know what the answer is, but I do get frustrated by stories like this one that confirm to me that people still do not understand what we do, how we do it, or the consequences of changing it without an alternative solution.

    • dave statter

      my disappointment with the story is exactly that. I would have liked the reporters to ask tough questions of those who want to cut. that is what is missing from the story.

    • 8truck

      Well said sir!

  • firedude

    Pensions in CA, mainly CALPERS are paid by workers & employers. The rate of return determines the amount we are all on the hook for. Obviously, the market has not been kind to CALPERS so they require a higher percentage. The problem for us started years ago during the golden years. When everyone was getting wall street rich, CALPERS rate of return exceeded its forecast so cities could opt out of payment for given years. What is failed to be reported is that the cities spent that money in failed capital improvement projects instead of investing the money, gain some interest & when payment is due, they would have it. Instead most cities floated pension obligation bonds to make those payment but with declining revenue, they can’t make those payments as well. You won’t read this in local newspapers in CA, the majority are against public safety.

  • Old head

    Firedude,
    You NAILED it. BAD MANAGEMENT caused nearly 100% of the monetary problems but it’s always the slobs in the trenches doing the actual dirty work who get blamed…

  • Well-Trained Vollie

    Too bad they didn’t bother to ask WHY a fire truck was sent on a medical call or WHY that truck followed the ambulance to the hospital. They’d probably find out that somebody was trying to save money on the EMS side with too few ambulances staffed with low-paid EMTs (maybe even just one EMT and a first responder-trained driver.

    I’ve always thought this approach was penny wise and pound foolish.

  • Former Chief

    Here is another question that wasn’t asked or answered. How much does the average property owner pay for fire protection? I’ll bet the average property owner doesn’t know how much of their tax dollars actually go to fire protection in that district. I tried to find that info via a google search but couldn’t. I do know that the requested $75 fee for single family homes, more for industrial property and less for apartment renters and agricultural, would have amounted to a whopping $1.44 per week per homeowner. So, because a majority of the people there only listened to the rhetoric about retired firefighters and how much they make (jealousy anyone) instead of how much it actually costs the average property owner, they will now see a reduction in service. My experience is that many taxpayers are very uneducated when it comes to their local taxes. They want everything, but don’t want to pay for it. Do some pensions need to be revamped in light of the current economic conditions? Sure they do. Is it fair to blame current retirees for pensions and benefits that were negotiated in good faith because the economy has weakened? No, at least not as far as I’m concerned. It would have also been nice if the reporters gave statistics on the call volume of Contra Costa County. While they may not respond to as many actual fires as they used to, I’ll bet their call volume has increased because of EMS runs. And I’ll assume they still run fires, Haz Mat, Technical Rescue, Motor Vehicle Extrication, and anything else needed. What is a Firefighter worth? I guess we’ll have to ask the average citizen that question. If the average citizen doesn’t want to pay for fire protection, and their local station is not staffed or understaffed they may pay in higher insurance premiums. Sadly, some will pay in lives and property.

  • Commenter

    Firefighters around DC cost $100-150,000. Look up the personnel budgets and divide by the number of personnel. PG is $125,000. DC is similar. VA departments are a little lower, but not much.

    It’s easy to find 20 year olds to ride a fire truck. It’s hard to find guys to do it for 25 years and learn hazmat, EMS, WMD, technical rescue, etc. Its hard to find guys who will show up on Christmas day when they’re 30 and have a 3 year old at home. You have to pay for that.

  • Mike

    Dave,

    I can assure you if I had reporters doing a ride along on my rig I wouldn’t be making negative comments about call response, instead I would be promoting the benefits of my company being there. My comments were similar to what Steve said, I would not be suprised that the crew was not given full information as to what the topic of the ride along was to focus on.

    • dave statter

      you hit the nail on the head in the first sentence. if you don’t want it to be used don’t say it to the reporter. it doesn’t have to involve trickery at all. I seriously doubt those were surreptitious recordings. but I have in my career seen some pretty bad reporters who feel they have to trick people to get a story. just like I’ve seen quite a few ethically challenged firefighters in my day. I do my best to try to judge everything based on the facts and not based on my personal bias.

      • Steve in NJ

        Sorry Dave but I think these reporters had an agenda. Go to the XYZ fire station in Contra Costa and do a ride along. Spend an entire day there with the recorder running the whole time so you can get some good 10 or 15 second sound bites that we can use to make the firefighters look bad. They didn’t bother to tell the entire story. The made damn sure to focus in on the firefighters being disappointed that they were answering a lot of EMS calls and that they were missing a job because they had to follow the ambulance to the hospital. The reporters never bothered to tell you the REASON that the engine had to go to the hospital or the benefits of having paramedic trained firefighters on duty in county fire stations. You can’t tell me that the “reporters” never bothered to ask, “Hey, why do we have to follow the ambulance to the hospital?” No sir. They only focused on anything that could be construed as negative by the public to support the intent of the story which was to make the firefighters look entitled and ungrateful. I understand as a member of the press you are giving the benefit of the doubt to the reporters who did the story but at the end of the day it is all about perception and the way I perceived the story was that it was one sided with an agenda.

        • dave statter

          You know Steve, I have heard from a lot of people in the fire service who, like me, came away with a completely different perspective. They felt this came very close to showing the reality that the fire service is dealing with, especially in California. Yes, as a reporter, you do have to edit out a good deal of what you see and refine into a narrative that makes sense. But the facts are, whether we like it or not, the public there did not support the fire service when they had the chance to. They believe the pensions are bloated and they don’t want to raise taxes to provide the protection they once had. There is no getting around that. Sorry, that’s what is bad for firefighters and not what these reporters did.

          And if the fire service wastes its time blaming the reporters rather than working on the perception that the public has and finding better ways to handle these important issues, they will have blown it completely.

          Yes, there are probably flaws in their reporting (I pointed one out). But overall it just described the very sad situation that has occurred there leading to four fire stations being closed.

          Love you Steve and often agree with you. This time you are shooting the messenger.

          Statter

  • Pedro

    Happy mayan end of the world fellas. On a side note, this story is from NPR, which in my experience, is usually the most objective, fairest, well rounded, and journalistically sound media outlet in existence. That much being said, as a FF, I sure didn’t like what I heard, I didn’t like how it portrayed Contra Costa FF, I didn’t like the timing of the story, but I can’t argue with why they made the report. It wasn’t a biased story, but since we’re the collective bunch at the unpleasant end of the stick…I won’t finish that sentence. This just has to be a reminder that times have changed, and people have forgotten about us while they toil in their everyday lives. We are now the “haves” and they are all the “have nots”. Even if we don’t feel the need, we NEED to advertise ourselves and justify our own existence. Hmmmm…Imagine that…firefighters that need to justify their own existence….maybe the Mayans were right, and it is the end of the world…as we know it.

  • AD

    I am an East Coast firefighter in a jurisdiction that borders a major city, and I have to say, I was disappointed in both the opinions and the firefighters featured. In the modern fire service, we all suffer from budgetary concerns, furloughs, rotating closures, and layoffs. I find that this story only tells the concerns of the people of CC county, and is in no way truly representative of circumstances nationwide. I know maybe one retired ff making over 100k in pension. Most guys I know retire and still work two jobs to make ends meet. Not to mention the fact that my brothers in the major jurisdiction to my north make VERY little for the work that they do. NPR can ask how much a firefighter is worth. I say, if you wanna know, get off your rear end, leave the studio, and do the job for a while. We’ll see how long they think we’re too expensive.

  • Jim

    I agree this seems more accurate for California and Contra Costa than everywhere. I don’t want to sound like Im trying to throw them under the bus but, California had a big boom leading to these big busts. While I won’t begrudge what they got, I don’t think it is as representative as the rest of the country. We didn’t see such a massive boom or bust, so many of us didn’t get the pay/benefit boost during the “boom”. Like I said, I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming them, but their situation doesn’t really fit with the rest of the country. In the North East, all we’ve had is hard years. The boom Cali saw, all we got was a not as crappy time. We’ve had companies close, we’ve had pay/benefit fights. So how much more do they want from us? I think it also misses the “why” of why the fire truck goes. Why we need a lot of firemen even if fire doesn’t happen quite as much as it did. This radio show can give a very unrealistic picture of the fire service nationwide.

  • BH

    I think the reporter practices that annoying voice. No way she actually talks like that.

  • ukfbbuff

    Thanks Dave for the article.

    As you know I’ve Never hidden the fact that Contra Costa (“Con Fire”) County is my “Hometown” FPD and that in the previous “Riverview FPD” (before consolidating with Con Fire) I was a Fire Reserve during the late 1970′s. Quint 84 in the accompanying picture is around the corner from my parents house in: Pittsburg, California.

    To the article.
    Fortunately on a “Whole” in California most people do appreciate what we do. It’s in certain “pockets” that tend to be “Anti-labor”, where their is Political “Sway” that the California Fire Service is having its difficulties. I’ve read a lot of Mr. Dan Borensteins’ articles and I consider what he has written along with that of his “Co-horts” in Orange, San Diego and Santa Clara Counties as; “Rubbish”.

    The article started with Quint 6 in down town Concord, California. Historically this station in the 60′s-90′s had two engines and one truck company with a staffing of 7. This was also the “Model” for Station 1 in Walnut Creek.

    Then along came the cut backs. While there were four stations closed within the Con Fire District, the adjoining “East Mt. Diablo FPD” on the East end of the County lost 50% of its personnel and two fire stations as a result of the tax measure not being passed.

    Then Immediately started to recruit “Volunteer Firefighters” for station coverage.

    I appreciate the Math that “Firedude” worked out and living in California is much more expensive than living in Indiana. The price of housing is much cheaper for a larger house as well as the cost of gasoline.

    The pension issue is in part a “Smoke Screen”. The concept under former Gov. “Arnold” was to raid the Cal PERS System to pay off the California’s debts. Shades of “Gordon Geko and Blue Star Airlines’”.

    While Ms. McKinney and Ms. Chase state that maybe some changes in the way we deliver our Service’s to the citizens need’s to occur, how do you do that, when the same citizens complain about lack of effective resources and personnel when it’s THEIR
    home or property is endangered by fire or they require EMS Services? (Voting against their own best interests)

    I’ll admit, my friends in Con Fire (Jad Aljoni, is a former instructor of mine) are not happy about the reductions and it will increase their work loads, but they will continue on as with my fellow FF’s in my FD.

    Finding a “Balance” between what is needed and how it happens
    unfortunately is happening on a jurisdiction by jurisdiction basis.

    Thanks again for running the story.

  • http://allsecondscount.ca Tony Araujo

    Dave:

    The residents of Contra Costa want what every citizen wants – more value for their hard earned tax dollars and when asked, they want their public servants to actually try to deliver results instead of empty platitudes.

    As a non-fire professional I recently asked precisely this of my local Toronto Fire Service (TFS is the the 5th largest fire department in NA). After TFS participated in the 2010 WPI FPRF Mobilization Study, they committed to reduce their turnouts by 64 seconds without any additional human or financial resources, by 2012 – an enormous productivity and safety improvement. Unfortunately for the residents Toronto and the professionals of TFS, TFS didn’t actually do anything to achieve this objective.

    When I point out to my city Councillors that our fire service finished in last place for turnouts in the WPI FPRF Study (65 seconds behind the 13 other NA fire departments that participated)- I’m called a firefighter hater by the professional firefighters who work for me.

    When I ask my Fire Chief to explain why there’s a 24 second difference between our best and worst performing crews on the WPI Baseline Turnout Exercise, I’m brushed off with a “It’s complicated, you don’t understand”.

    The NPR report and some comments here, reveal that many in the Fire Services don’t understand that the “marketplace” for their services has changed dramatically and that fire service needs to change too. Like NPR’s Caitlin Kenny asks: “If everything is changing for the fire department, why are we paying for it the same way?”

    Nobody at CoCo Fire had to be tricked into saying:

    “Cause that’s what we signed up to do. I mean, basically, that’s much more fun for us, to go to fires.”

    Blaming the customer doesn’t work in the private sector, why do it in the public sector?

    • dave statter

      Tony Araujo,

      I do my best not to get involved in the internal politics of Contra Costa or Toronto. I know precious little about either place, though I do know the fire chief in one of those two jurisdictions.

      That said, I understand the desire amd meed to hold fire department’s accountable and smart organizations are doing that. Especially in this environment. I am all for that.

      But something that is lost on many who want fire departments to cut to the bare bones is this. And I am speaking in generalities here. When you close that firehouse because it has the lowest number of calls for service it looks good on paper. You can say we weren’t getting that much bang for the buck anyway out of that firehouse. But when the child dies because it took two or three extra minutes to get the first fire engine on the scene for a cpr call or a fire it doesn’t look so good.

      In at least 75 percent of the atories I have run on these type cuts in the past three years (or similar stories I am familiar with through a long TV news career) the mayor or other political leader tells you closing the firehouse won’t impact service. Many times a fire chief is forced to say these disingenuous words. Of course it impacts service. You can’t one day tell the public every second counts in a fire and then the next say it really doesn’t.

      And just because fires may be down and EMS calls up, does that mean we need fewer fire companies? Part of the deal in having a fire department is insurance when things do go bad. Those fires still occur.

      Whether it’s in Contra Costa or Toronto or East Ajax Township, it’s important to be honest about what the closing of one or four fire stations really means. And that also means being honest about the impact on safety for firefighters who may be working alone for longer periods of time.

      Similarly when the cost cutters think its okay to send two (or even one) firefighters out on a fire truck. Yes, you can do it. It can be done. I can attest to that personally. But at what cost? If you decide to do something like that, be honest to yourself, to the public and to your firefighters about whose well being is on the line.

      Statter

      • http://allsecondscount.ca Tony Araujo

        Dave:

        You hit the nail squarely on the head when you say:

        “You can’t one day tell the public every second counts in a fire and then the next say it really doesn’t”.

        This statement works both ways.

        When a department knows it’s crews can turnout much faster (in this case more than a full minute) and does nothing to achieve that improvement, it condemns every single emergency call to a costly time deficit before any truck hits the road. Taxpayers are largely ignorant of this cost because neither the department (that wants more money) nor the union (who wants more members) gains by highlighting it.

        In Toronto we’ve got 83 stations and are building 4 new ones – not exactly what you’d call “cutback” mode. Closing a fire station obviously has a driving time cost associated with it. In our case the department estimates that’s 26 seconds for the single station they’d like to close in a service area with an existing 192 second driving time (90th percentile) – significantly better than the NFPA 1710 requirement of 240 seconds.

        The union claims that these 26 driving seconds are going to cost lives. If that’s true then what is the cost in lives of the 64 turnout seconds that the department readily admits that they lose on each and every call?

        This is the dirty little productivity secret in the fire service. Drivings seconds count, They’re expensive. To the outside world, turnout seconds are the poor peso of response time metrics. The marketplace has changed and turnout time is the “low hanging fruit” of the productivity improvements that all fire departments need to implement, before layoffs, brownouts and station closures. Trouble is many departments don’t really mean it when the say “all seconds count”.

  • http://burnedoutmedic.com burned-out medic

    i sort of wrote about this briefly a while back…

    http://burnedoutmedic.com/2012/06/faq-1