In many occupations, salary and security are inversely proportionate with one another. Jobs that pay very well can sometimes be filled with insecurity; some jobs are very stable but do not pay well at all. The fire service has the better of the two worlds. It pays fairly well and is relatively free of fluctuations in employment conditions.
Assets And Liabilities
Like any other occupation, the fire service has its advantages and its disadvantages. Some of them can be measured in dollars and cents. Most cannot. The greatest asset of a fire service career cannot ever be given a value: it is the sense of usefulness that a person has by being a firefighter. Nothing can exceed the fulfillment a person gets by saving a life or winning a battle against a fire. It's an internal thing that does not show up on the paycheck, but most members of the fire service feel it and believe it.
Members of the fire service enjoy a camaraderie and fraternity that stretches across the nation. A firefighter from New York can feel very comfortable in the training room of a fire station in southern California. Firefighters often have as their hobby the collecting of fire memorabilia. They often hold giant "musters" or contests to test their skills. The greatest asset of the fire service is that it is never just a job; it is a life-time commitment.
On the negative side of the ledger, the greatest liability of the fire service is that it is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. More people are killed or injured in the line of duty as firefighters than any other occupation. While this is certainly nothing to brag about, it is reality. The scene of an emergency is full of danger. The very same things that have caused an emergency to exist in the first place often endanger the firefighter. Being required to go from a sound sleep to a full response in seconds takes its toll on the heart and lungs.
Continued emphasis on safety over the past few decades has improved conditions somewhat. But fire situations are getting continuously worse. The use of more hazardous materials creates dangerous fires. The incidence of higher rise fires creates greater stress on fire crews. For these reasons, firefighters often have much better retirement systems than other employees. They also have higher worker's compensation and disability claims, and many firefighters never reach retirement age.
Overall, however, the fire service is well compensated for the duties that it is expected to perform. The following are descriptions of the basic salary and benefits that a person can expect from a fire service career.
There are at least three different benchmarks that relate to the subject of salary: starting pay, range of pay, and highest pay. This means that a candidate needs to look very carefully at salary schedules when competing for jobs. In any given area, these salary figures will vary a great deal, depending on such things as the size of the department and the community's ability to pay. You can actually find situations where two departments can be right next door to one another and have salaries which differ by as much as twenty percent.
According to the latest Municipal Year Book the average entrance level salary for full time firefighters is $ 13,700. This figure is an average of all areas of the country. Generally speaking, the high salaries are found in the largest cities, and the cities in the western part of the U.S. tend to be the highest. The lowest salaries tend to be in the part-paid departments, especially through the Midwest.
The same report indicates that the average maximum salary for full time firefighters is $16,700. This is an increase of about twenty-three percent over the entrance level salary. Most of the cities which reported this data indicated that their salary schedules offered increases from the minimum to the maximum salary over a five year period. These four to five percent annual increases are usually granted on the basis of improved performance on the job.
Some departments offer what is called "longevity pay." This is an extra, added salary (over the maximum salary) that is given to individuals who are very competent but who for some reason cannot or do not get promoted beyond the classification of firefighter. Longevity pay is not normally granted until the person has been on the job for an extended period of time (perhaps ten years). According to the Yearbook the average number of years taken to achieve maximum salary and maximum longevity is eighteen. The average for these longevity programs is around $1,000 per year.
A person who stays in the fire service until retirement can expect to be promoted at least once or twice within the hierarchy of the department. This will result in increasing salary levels. It is not uncommon for a person to reach a salary level of $50,000 per year as a chief officer.
Unions in the Fire Service
One reason that the fire service has achieved many of the financial rewards that it has is because of firefighter unions. Most of the larger departments are members of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). They are organized into groups called "locals." Basically, a local is nothing more than a recognized group of firefighters from one department which has applied for recognition from the IAFF. The IAFF maintains a national office and works to protect the benefits of all firefighters. It sponsors legislation at the state and federal levels to increase these benefits whenever possible.
In most fire departments, membership is not a requirement nor does a person have to join the union in order to get employed. In most cases, people cannot join until they have finished their probation. The dues to belong to the IAFF are usually very nominal. IAFF officers are elected from among the ranks of the members by the members.
Types of Benefits
Of course, salary is only part of the compensation that a firefighter receives. As a matter of fact, the benefits normally accrued to firefighters often equal as much as thirty-five percent of their base pay. Quite frankly, this is a blessing and a curse for the fire service. It is good in that it provides a lot of protection for the members of the department. But it is a problem in that each year as budgets increase, the benefits paid to public safety personnel like fire and police departments are subject to criticism. The reason we mention it here is to warn potential firefighters that benefits must be used correctly and reserved for conditions where they are really needed. They should never be abused.
Among the benefits that we will discuss are retirement, job disability, insurance, educational incentives, allowances, and non-tangible benefits.
Firefighting is arduous and dangerous work. Because of the physical demands of the job, one cannot function as an entry level firefighter or even a specialist or a combat officer much beyond the age of sixty. This does not mean that there aren't firefighters older than that. It means that, on the average, by the time a person has reached that age he or she is not in the physical condition to be effective in emergency.
For that reason, most fire agencies have retirement plans which release people from firefighting duty before they reach that age. These retirement plans are generally funded from two sources-the city and the individual. What generally occurs is that the local government agency will invest an amount of money to equal a percentage of a person's salary each month. The employee is asked to contribute a like amount. Over a period of years, this accumulates in a fund that will allow a person to retire at a certain age. The retirement amount frequently is equal to about two percent a year of a person's salary.
What this means is that people with twenty-five years on the job can retire with an income equal to fifty percent of their base salary. This figure depends on the formula used by the employer and varies a great deal from one area to another. Also, this type of formula is usually used only for the uniformed members of the force. Non-uniformed members usually have a separate system.
Firefighting is among the most dangerous jobs in the world. Each year hundreds of firefighters are killed in the line of duty. Thousands are retired early because of job injuries. For this reason, disability retirement benefits are very important to the fire fighter. Most communities maintain insurance for the fire department to assure that there are funds available in case of a job injury those forces an early retirement.
In some cases, the retirement plan covers job injuries. In almost all cases, disability retirement benefits are mandated by state laws.
A wide variety of insurance programs are available to fire departments. These include life insurance, medical insurance, and even discounted automobile insurance. The amount of these benefits varies a great deal from department to department, but in almost all cases the programs selected covers both employees and their dependents.
If a person is injured while on-duty, he or she is covered by department disability or retirement funds. Insurance programs are usually set up to help when a person becomes sick or injured while not on-duty. These programs are primarily aimed at improving the financial security of the off-duty firefighter. Some cities even have long-term disability insurance; this is a program that helps people restore their incomes to a pre-injury level if they are forced into an early retirement.
As you can see, there is a great deal of emphasis on health and safety in this field. Consequently, another of the benefits that the more progressive fire departments offer or require is daily physical conditioning and annual medical examinations. The purpose of the physical conditioning is to keep the firefighters physically fit to perform the fire suppression. The purpose of the annual examination is to identify medical problems before they become a serious threat to the person.
Because the firefighter must be in uniform at all times, uniforms are often dirtied or destroyed. Many fire agencies give each of their members a monthly allowance for the care and maintenance of their work uniforms. The range of these allowances is from twenty to thirty dollars a month; they are often paid quarterly. This allowance is for routine wear and tear only. It is not related to the protective clothing that the firefighter uses. In most departments, all protective clothing is paid for and replaced by the agency, according to state law.
Educational Incentive Programs
Education has become an important aspect of the fire profession. Many departments, in order to encourage members to gain greater education, offer educational incentives.
These may be paid to individuals for different educational achievement levels, or they may be paid to individuals to reimburse them for tuition and books.
They are a real advantage to the person who uses them. Departments that pay educational incentive are often the ones with the greatest potential for promotion. Even where promotions are limited, educational programs are part of the trend towards professionalism.
There are limits to these programs. In some cases, the benefit is only paid after completion of specific courses. In other cases, the benefit is for a fixed period of time and the person must continue to go to school in order to maintain the benefit.
Sick Leave and Vacation
Like most public and private employees, the firefighter is eligible for sick leave and vacation benefits. The difference in the fire service is that the shift work of the firefighter influences the use of the benefits. A firefighter's twenty-four-hour shift means that sick leave and vacation are discharged at the same rate. While in most other jobs a person has a five-day work week, the firefighter works a twenty-four-hour shift as a part of a team. One cannot just "take a day off" when he or she wants to. Vacation schedules are carefully planned in the fire service, and a person thinks twice about taking a day off using sick leave unless they are really ill.
Because of the shift cycle, it is very common for a person to have to work special holidays. Fire never takes a holiday, so the firefighters can't either. This means that one must expect to have to work days family and friends do not. I worked my first four Christmases as a firefighter. It is sometimes a real inconvenience and you cannot expect to have vacation days or take sick leave to compensate for the inconvenience. Most cities pay fire and police personnel overtime for their work when everyone else is off, but they seldom grant special favors on the holidays.
All of the benefits so far are tangible. One of the unique things about the fire service, however, is its many intangible benefits.
We discussed these benefits early in this chapter. The fire service has the added benefit of security, job satisfaction, and personal prestige. These things are not measured in dollars and cents, but they are real nonetheless.
When talking about job security, most people think in terms of lay-offs or reductions in force. The fact is that fire departments in some parts of the country have reduced forces. But that is not what we are referring to in this discussion of security. There are very few jobs in which the security of each person is such a concern as it is in the fire service. Firefighters live and work in such a close environment that the teamwork and camaraderie is essential. This translates into a form of security that few other jobs have. Members of the fire service help each other. They look out for each other. They are more like a family than anything else.
Of course, there are exceptions to this image, but they are rare. Job security in this field includes a sense of belonging that transcends the financial aspects of the job.
The second aspect of the job that is hard to define is job satisfaction. When most people finish a day's work, they can go home and almost forget what they did to earn the roof over their head. But after seeing the look on the face of a family member who’s loved one you have saved, you realize that being a firefighter is not a work-a-day job. Its rewards are in the accomplishment of deeds. It pays off in the feelings of satisfaction you get after you have met a challenge and won. There are no price tags for that exhilaration and there are few places you can achieve them.
Lastly, there is the aspect of personal prestige. The job of the firefighter is regarded reasonably well in our society. It's not at the top of the ladder, but its way up there. Practically every kid in the world visits a fire station and wants to be a firefighter when he or she grows up. Those who actually realize that fantasy are often looked upon as being a special kind of person. Many jobs have good public images. But the firefighter is the one people call when they are in trouble.