More for Their Money: If we expect a pay raise, we have to do more than just show up when called

More for Their Money
If we expect a pay raise, we have to do more than just show up when called
By Scott Cook

I’ll be the first to say that fire and EMS personnel generally aren’t paid nearly enough. I’ll also be the first to say that we knew what the job paid when we took it—practically begged for it in some cases. We worked out for months, and tested and tested to get on the job somewhere. All along we knew what the pay was, and how much we’d get paid in the future, with time and promotions. Some of us even left very financially rewarding, but unsatisfying, careers in private industry to take our dream job.

Now, we complain about what the job pays. And again, I’ll say that it DOES NOT pay enough.
I know very few career fire and EMS personnel (or cops for that matter) who don’t work second or even third jobs on their days off. I’ve heard Bruno say on more than one occasion that half of the concrete in Phoenix was poured by the Phoenix Fire Department.

An $850,000 Mistake
The thing is, most of us are just complaining about it; we’re not doing something about it. Sure, we get out and vote for the local, state and federal politician who says they’re on our side, but when it comes down to it, they’d rather put up an $850,000 piece of yard art.

In case you’ve had your head in the sand for the past couple months, here’s what I’m talking about: Recently Ann Arbor, Mich., decided to spend $850,000 for a piece of art by an artist who’s not even a Michigan resident. $850,000 could have kept 8 to 10 firefighters on the job another year, but the city doesn’t have the “huevos” to move the money from one budget category to another.

Here’s the deal: In 2007, the City of Ann Arbor decided it would be a swell idea to set aside 1 percent of the budget that went into capitol improvement items, costing $100,000 or more for government art. (To be fair, they spin it as “public” art.) But enough about that—just Google “Ann Arbor and firefighter” to read more.

Some Things We Don’t Do
Interestingly, similar situations are going on across the country, but we don’t hear as much about them. Cities, states and our federal government fund “artists” who can’t sell their products on the free market, and government services suffer financially as a result. It happens in my town under the guise of “promoting tourism.”

And we’re not doing ourselves any favors by simply complaining about our low wages. We would be better served by trying to understand what goes into these decisions:

1. Municipalities don’t operate like businesses, where an individual has a choice whether to purchase a good or service. For a municipality to pay more money to a firefighter, the municipality has to take that money from someone else. That money is generally, but not always, taken involuntarily. And just like us firefighters, John Q. Public believes he is already taxed enough.
2. In most cities, firefighters don’t contribute much money to a politician’s campaign. Sure, some of us “get the vote out” for some pol. But as a whole, we don’t give money to a pol like his art-loving (or other cause) constituents. So who’s the pol beholden to?
3. The general perception of the public is that they love us. Firefighters are routinely told we are the most trusted profession out there. But even those who love us don’t really understand or know what we do besides run into burning buildings, or show up in an ambulance.
4. We haven’t done a good job of being visible unless it’s an emergency, fire prevention week or time to shop for a meal.

Some Things We Can Do
So what should we do? Make ourselves more valuable—or demonstrate our value better.

Quite simply, the fire department is the only service a government provides that actually saves money for the occupancy owners. Did you know that?

It’s a fact. Insurance premiums are lower simply because a community has a fire department, and improvements in that department can make them even lower. ISO’s Public Protection Classification is used to help calculate insurance rates for your community. Go ahead, find a friendly insurance agent and find out what your rate is under the current ISO rating and what it would be if there wasn’t a fire department. When Texas switched to the ISO program, the Granbury Volunteer Fire Department saved the occupancy owners of Granbury more than $2 million a year in premiums (as best as I can recall; it was more than 10 years ago). Our operating budget was around $200,000.

What else? Well, it seems to be the third rail of the fire service, but it’s there: billing.

Insurance policies allow, and will pay for, fire and rescue services, same as they will for medical services. But, you say, “The taxpayer is already paying for our services.” Then why are you complaining about your salary? Your salary is part of the service the taxpayer is paying for, isn’t it?

As I was saying …

If your fire department operates an ambulance, the taxpayer is already paying taxes for that, too. Does your municipality bill for payment on EMS runs? Of course (or at least they should be).

So what’s the difference? Bovine scatology.

Somewhere in your chain, someone doesn’t have the stones to present a logical argument for billing for fire services. Get the facts, then do it.

Reach Out
One more thing you can do: Be more active in your community.

Take a page from the Phoenix Fire Department: “Currently, the Phoenix Fire Department provides flu immunizations to the community, teaches Urban Survival to K through 8th grades, provides fitness and wellness mentorships to high schools with our Fire FitKids program, and participates in numerous community health fairs to educate our customers on wellness and fitness.”

Bruno used to say that the Phoenix Fire Department never lost an election. That’s a direct result of the firefighters being out there with their community.

Get out and mingle. Tell people what you’re worth and prove it by doing it. Give people more for their money. Stop making them wait until they call 911 to see the firefighters in their neighborhood. It’s just not enough anymore to show up when called. It’s a fact, and it’s time to get over it.

Demonstrate your worth. Then, and only then, ask the public to demand your city government set aside a percentage of something for you.

Scott Cook is the former chief of the Granbury (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department and a fire service instructor. He’s also a member of FireRescue’s editorial board.


Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Comment by Gregory Borg on October 19, 2010 at 8:03pm
No bites on meaty questions but what color is your helmet, how old is your fire truck? WTF?
Comment by Gregory Borg on October 17, 2010 at 1:10pm
Scott,
Great questions and comments. Real food for thought. Paul should be commenting because he is hungry for some conversation.
Here is my take. 1) on the not paid enough issue. That is very true in many parts of the country. But in some places it is not. I feel that in Washington, California and some other places we do make enough. Not enough to be rich but still a great wage for a blue collar working man. A top FF in Spokane make $82,000 and works a 46 hour work week with full benefits. It is the choice of the member to work two jobs, it is not needed to "get by", it is to get "I wants". The opposite is true of FF in other parts of the country where the wage of FF's is not even up to poverty levels. So there is a big difference. Remember there is a big gap between having to work a second job to pay the rent and feed the kids and working one so you can have the "I wants" in life. Many FF make plenty to pay the bills, it is living in the suburbs, two or three new cars, the boat, motorcycles etc that create the situation where people say I can't get by on my FF income.
2) We do not get paid for what we know or what we do. We get paid commensurate with how strong our bargaining position and bargaining law is. If your bargaining law is strongly in favor of the workers then the workers will make good money if it favors management then you will not. Compare Washington's law to say Idaho's. Washington's FF's make from 1/3 to 1/2 more than Idaho's FF's. We do the same job, live in the same region, face the same dangers, have the same skills, do the same public services. Yet Washington's make way better money, why? Because the bargaining law in Washington is much stronger for workers.
Which brings me to your well made point about doing something. 3) What we can do is where we depart in our philosophy. What needs to be done is political home work, electing people that help you get what you want in the state legislature and city council. It takes an organized effort, a strong local union and a strong and aggressive state union organization to accomplish this.
My advice is to join the union, make it do what you want by participating, raise money, get political and raise yourself to the level you feel is justified. Reaching out as Scott says is part of the solution, but organized labor is the answer to lift those that are behind to the level of the leaders in wages and benefits.
I will make my point one more time. We (Washington FF's) do not get paid well because our job is dangerous, or for the skills we have or for our community service. We get paid well because we organized and built a strong political machine.
Comment by Art "ChiefReason" Goodrich on October 16, 2010 at 11:11pm
Scott:
I can't speak for anyone else on this, but when we bill for services, it is done for those who do not pay taxes for fire protection, such as someone traveling through the district who has a vehicle accident, for instance. It has to "feel right" and we must "justify" the charges.
It would not feel right to bill someone who already pays taxes for our services, unless there were extraordinary expenses involved, such as a long and complex rescue that requires mitigation beyond what is covered under fire protection.
If we billed for a service to our taxpayers, they would be upset to receive a bill in addition to their taxes.
We have to be very careful when we look at our billing practices.
Comment by Fitzy on October 15, 2010 at 4:15pm
There's not much if anything at all we can do more than we already do.....where's the back pay raises for that? I'm not sure about you , but where I work, we do alot more than just show up!!! I also have friends in other departments around the Northeast, and they do more than, as you say"just show up"!
Comment by FETC on October 15, 2010 at 1:30pm
Easy to say and do when you have alot of firefighters on duty. Most are running on the other end of the stick, with not enough to manage mitigation services, let alone enough manpower or time for public education / additional non-emergency services. Bean counters see one time expenditures like yard art being "non-reoccurring" feel good purchase. They see manpower, wages, benefits, retirement packages, contracts or COLA's as a bothersome "splinter" in their backside for which they can't get rid of.

As far as charging for fire services, yes I agree that most do not capture that source of income unless it was a hazmat. I have also sat in many meetings with a discussion on the taxpayer's current impact, and the future burden of being "taxed" again (forever) with increased preminums when we start billing the insurance carrier for everything we respond to.

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