More for Their MoneyIf 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.
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