Firefighter salary vs. firefighter value

A comparison between professional athletes and firefighter salaries, and their roles in their communities


By Keith Collins, alumni, Fire Science ManagementAmerican Military University

Year after year, elite professional athletes sign astronomically high-value contracts. When considering what is expected of professional athletes, there are many similarities with professional firefighters:  

  • Athletes spend long periods of time away from their families to do their job.
  • Athletes must work out and train behind the scenes.
  • Athletes are expected to act as role models and often provide community service.
When considering what is expected of professional athletes, there are many similarities with professional firefighters. (Photo/In Public Safety)
When considering what is expected of professional athletes, there are many similarities with professional firefighters. (Photo/In Public Safety)

So, while firefighters are without a doubt iconic public figures for many young boys and girls out there, let’s look at the reality of compensation that many firefighters face and compare that to the reality of the sports world.

Firefighter salary

In the United States, the average individual income is approximately $34,940. If, hypothetically, we paid each firefighter an average income for each of their responsibilities (for this argument, we’ll just use the three main responsibilities of professional firefighters in the country – fire, EMS and hazmat – and exclude specialty and supplementary responsibilities – wildland fire, rescue, ARFF, SWAT/SRT, etc.), the day-to-day firefighter working on the floor in operations would earn about $104,820. Wow! Wouldn’t that be nice?

We know that the reality of the situation, however, is much different. Very few firefighters clear such high salaries, and in many cases, only seasoned officers break into the six-figure range. The average firefighter salary in the United States is $45,563.

While it is highly doubtful that anyone gets into this business for the money, relatively low salaries make many in the industry feel unappreciated. After all, firefighters have responsibilities aligned with saving lives, yet in many places their entry-level hourly wage can be as low as $9.69. For reference, a McDonald’s crew member earns an hourly wage of $9.

While that should be a sobering comparison for anyone who has been positively impacted by their local fire department, it gets worse. There has been a constant and consistent push from political powers at the state and federal level to chip away at firefighter pensions, which hinders a firefighter’s retirement earnings

A valued investment in firefighter compensation

When positions and futures are turned into political talking points, fire professionals tend to ask: What is the value of a life? If a firefighter, EMT or medic saves a person’s life, is there a price that can be placed on that?

In addition to the immeasurable value of saving people’s lives, firefighters save communities actual dollars in protecting property. In a study conducted at the University of Arizona over a one-year period, it was estimated that if the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department had been unable to successfully intervene in 42 commercial fires, the state of Arizona would have experienced a loss of $650 million dollars in gross state product and over $35 million in state tax revenue.

Clearly, protecting property is a way to show just how valuable firefighters can be. We can also look at the property value of a response area to define a firefighter’s worth. Based on national averages: For a typical American community, there is a tax base of about $41,529,600, which does not include business tax, sales tax or any other forms of revenue in the community (residential value only). This number is based on the average-sized American city, town, borough or village with a population of a little more than 20,000 people.

The median home value in the United States is $188,900, and approximately 63 percent of the population are homeowners. That means approximately 12,600 people in a 20,000-person city population are paying property taxes. Single-family homeowners paid an average of about $3,296 in property taxes.

If there is one firefighter per 1,000 residents (less than the average for New York City, more than the average for Los Angeles) that would mean that a town of 20,000 residents would have (or need) at least approximately 20 firefighters.

Each individual firefighter is then responsible for protecting $119,007,000 ($188,900 home price x 12,600 property owners/ 20 firefighters) worth of residential property each, and $2,380,140,000 worth of residential assets total (12,600 property owners x $188,900 property value). That’s a huge responsibility!

Comparing firefighter salary to professional athletes

To put that financial responsibility for the average small-town in America into perspective, the Buffalo Bills football organization is worth an estimated $1.6 billion dollars. Presuming the Bills carry the 53-man NFL roster that makes each player responsible for $30,188,679 of the organization’s worth. That pales in comparison when stacked against the $119 million estimated for each firefighter. Again, this is only calculating for residential protection. The values reflected in businesses protected, dollars collected in EMS transport, and any other potential service with monetary value are not calculated here.

In another example of value for comparison, LeBron James has signed a four-year, $153 million-dollar contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. That breaks down to $38,250,000 per year. Putting that into perspective, if we took the average firefighter salary of $45,563 and rounded that up to $100,000 per year (to compensate for healthcare costs, retirement, cost-of-living and promotion), the cost to compensate one firefighter for 30 years would be $3,000,000. To pay that firefighter at 60 percent compensation during retirement for 35 more years would cost $2,100,000. Based on those numbers, for $5.1 million dollars, 65 years of a firefighter’s career and retirement is compensated. For what LeBron James makes in one year, you could pay seven firefighters for 65 years.

Each individual firefighter is then responsible for protecting $119,007,000 ($188,900 home price x 12,600 property owners/ 20 firefighters) worth of residential property each, and $2,380,140,000 worth of residential assets total (12,600 property owners x $188,900 property value). (Photo/Keith Collins)
Each individual firefighter is then responsible for protecting $119,007,000 ($188,900 home price x 12,600 property owners/ 20 firefighters) worth of residential property each, and $2,380,140,000 worth of residential assets total (12,600 property owners x $188,900 property value). (Photo/Keith Collins)

Calculating firefighter community value

One value of firefighters that is not commonly calculated in their salaries is their community value. As mentioned earlier, like the athletes our country loves to cheer for, firefighters are looked to as role models for the youth of our communities. Like athletes, firefighters give up a large portion of their private lives to their profession. Your local fire department may provide CPR courses, teach ropes and knots to the local Scouts troop, raise money for charities (e.g., MDA Fill the Boot), help with car seat installations, and conduct water safety courses, fire safety courses, facility safety inspections and more. Many of these may be done during a firefighter’s time “off.”

The truth is, many of us love being such a key piece in the community and have a desire to give back. Community service is our purpose. Whether wearing the badge or not, firefighters are a constant reflection of their departments, their community and their families. It’s a constant pressure to carry ourselves in a positive light. These are expectations mostly thought to be reserved for athletes and celebrities, but the truth is that public service professionals carry those expectations too.

If it can be argued (with sound logic) that firefighters are of significant value to the community, how do we avoid getting to the point where so many of our professional brothers and sisters are paid so little or are continually fighting just to keep their retirements?

The million dollar firefighter

There are some things firefighters can do to continue having a positive impression on the public, which hopefully positively influences the politicians who make decisions about our pay and benefits. While we may never earn a million dollars in our lifetimes, here are five things we can do to be “million-dollar firefighters:”

  1. Physical fitness. Firefighters cannot perform the demanding tasks of their profession if they are not physically fit. America’s athletes are fit, and fitness is an important part of being a role model.
  2. Being polite. Say please, thank you, and ma’am or sir. Address people with manners and respect.
  3. Look professional. I’m not saying that we need to always have our uniforms pressed and our boots polished, but I am saying firefighters should be conscious of their appearance, have shirts tucked in, boots properly laced (if they have laces), and hair well kept.
  4. Carry yourself appropriately. My grandfather used to say that we shouldn’t put ourselves in a position to be tempted to fail. What this means is do not put yourself in a position, in public, that could shed negative light on you, your family or your employer. Firefighters can absolutely go out and have a good time, so long as we’re responsible. This applies to how we portray ourselves on social media as well.
  5. Training and education. Once upon a time, I had an instructor who told me that the minute we think we know everything there is to know about this business, it’s time to leave (because you’re going to get yourself or someone else hurt). We need to constantly be learning, striving to be better at our jobs and honestly evaluating our own performance. If we hold ourselves to a high standard and do not become complacent, we are more valuable to our team and our community.

If we continue to exemplify the million-dollar firefighter mentality, and demonstrate our great worth to our communities, our value will hopefully be honored. If we are persistent in the pursuit of ensuring a positive future for our brothers and sisters in the fire service, there is no doubt we will succeed.

About the author
Keith Collins graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s of science in Fire Science Management from American Military University. In 2017, he earned a Master’s Degree in Public Health from Grand Canyon University. Keith has more than 14 years in the fire service, including military service, and is currently working as a firefighter in Fort Huachuca, Az. Follow Keith on Twitter @keithgcollins. To reach him, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

 

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