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What does a firefighting job pay?

I’ll tell you right away that I didn’t become a firefighter in order to get rich


Photo/St. Louis County

By Mick Mayers

In Michael Karter and Gary Stein’s NFPA‘s U.S. Fire Department Profile, released in 2013, there were more than 1.12 million firefighters in 30,100 fire departments throughout the United States. Thirty-one percent of those 1.12 million were career firefighters. This same report indicated that only 2,610 fire departments were classified as “all career” staff with the remaining being a mixture of mostly career, mostly volunteer, and all volunteer agencies.

One might think it is difficult to get a job as a career firefighter, but a lot of the difficulty is actually in being located (or willing to relocate to) where the jobs are. This might seem to some to be a no-brainer, but if you look at the numbers, you’ll see why it isn‘t the case. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013 the annual mean wage for firefighters ran from $18,950 to as high as $90,140. While that low seems incredibly low and the high incredibly high, the reality is that the median annual wage is approximately $45,600. In the realm of getting rich, you aren‘t going to do it in this profession. In the communities in which the annual mean wage of firefighters was just above $90,000, the average annual mean wage was $67,410 for all occupations, housing costs 220 percent of the United States average, and property taxes more than 300 percent of the national average.

I’ll tell you right away that I didn’t become a firefighter in order to get rich. Being the fourth generation on the job, we like to say it is the “family business.” People who know me know I’d do it for free, and I have before, but I’m blessed to have been able to make a living doing something I love and am proud of. But for a long time, firefighters realized that the job was a relatively secure position with decent benefits. My own plan was to start young, work hard, then hopefully be healthy enough to take my retirement benefit. If you were lucky, after 20 to 25 years of firefighting and getting a decent education, you could get a chief‘s job in another city or state, or even take on a new career.

Unfortunately, many of our brothers and sisters aren’t so lucky.

NIOSH study of firefighters published in 2013 found considerably increased rates of cancer as compared to the U.S. population as a whole and two times greater the rate of mesothelioma — an aggressive cancer affecting the membrane lining of the lungs and abdomen. In their “golden years”, firefighters often must also contend with the toll of spinal or other musculoskeletal injuries, burns, or respiratory diseases, and firefighter retirement benefits simply don‘t keep up with the bills that come from those situations. I know relatively young firefighters who have had to go out on a disabling injury or illness, and frankly, firefighting disability payouts in most communities are horrible.

Then there are the “haters;” individuals who have a perception that firefighters have cushy jobs where they sleep all day waiting for a call. I‘ll admit, there are few departments around the nation who do little to dispel that myth. There are also those departments who have been implicated in unethical and illegal compensation manipulation. Departments like those give the vast majority of hard-working, community-minded firefighters a bad name. Believe it or not, we resent their antics as much as any other citizen if not more for the embarrassment they give our profession.

Most firefighters, when they report for duty, have in addition to their emergency response duties, any number of daily duties that include inspecting for fire hazards in the community, educating civilians in fire safety, response to non-emergency assistance calls, and maintaining the apparatus and fire protection systems. Firefighters in most communities are required to train for a certain amount of time each shift and also to study for promotional or certification exams. And of course, since the taxpayers are truly the owners of the station and apparatus, the firefighters must keep the building, trucks, and equipment clean.

With all of that, it is certainly possible to make a living as a firefighter, as I have done for 32 years. There are organizations in the country like the one I work for, who have made considerable strides in providing a safe yet challenging workplace, in encouraging health and wellness, and in providing decent benefits that encourage us to do a better job through performance incentives, paying for employees to take college courses, and sharing the costs of healthcare insurance.

Firefighting can be dirty, difficult, and stressful work, but at the end of the day, I have a considerable amount of pride in my career choice. While not everyone can do the job, physically or mentally, most firefighters are guys and gals that the community can trust to be there for them in their hour of need, people with a considerable amount of integrity and competence that given the amount of money they actually make each year, is a considerable return on investment for the taxpaying citizen.

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