Fire Fighter Pay and Compensation

By Vince Wells

The pay and compensation of fire fighters has become the topic of conversation on many blogs and news articles. Our compensation has been exploited by some as overly generous and with others, the cause of the economic downturn.

As the lead negotiator for six of the 11 fire departments/districts in Contra Costa County, I can assure you our pay varies significantly. It has been our practice to survey the salary and benefits of 32 bay area departments to use in contract negotiations. We have always pushed to be within the average of the “top 10” bay area departments.

Even though this has been our charge, we have not been able to achieve this level of pay or compensation for the 15 years I have been here.

We have always settled for contracts that were within the affordability of our jurisdictions. This is evident by the fact that we represent departments that are number 31 (Pinole Fire Department) and 32 (East Contra Costa County) out of the 32 bay area departments surveyed.

When it comes to the worth of a person, profession, or service, it has always been debatable. Being a sports fan, I have been in many discussions regarding player contracts of quarterbacks, pitchers, or basketball players. I have often questioned the pay of certain movie actors as well. I have often questioned their contribution to society as a measuring stick as to what they should be paid.

Should a guy who can “dunk a basketball” from the free throw line make more than a pediatric nurse? Should Jim Carey make more money than a school teacher?

This can be debated on many levels and has been. I guess if you were the private nurse, teacher, police officer, soldier, or firefighter, of a multimillionaire, then you could expect to be paid accordingly.

I believe that as a fire fighter we will not be paid based on the services we provide, but on where we provide them. We understand that our pay scale is based on what money is available within the jurisdictions we work. I am offended, however, by those who question our worth. When people comment on our “overly generous benefits, retirements, or annual salaries” and say that we are paid too much it does sting a bit.

No, many of us cannot through a 90 mile an hour fast ball, dunk from the free throw line, we are not CEO’s of major corporations, and have not created software, cell phones, or I pads.

I can tell you what I have done though. I have done CPR on a 1 minute year old and a 105 year old. I have got pulses and respirations back on someone who was dead. I have pulled people out of raging waters and from off of cliffs.

I have pulled people out of burning buildings and cut people out of vehicles when they were trapped and bleeding to death. I have held dead children, mothers, sons, daughters and fathers.

I have fallen through floors, roofs, broken my ankle, injured my back, injured my eye, shoulders, and have a lung condition that I will be lucky if I can retire at 50 with.

I have had to explain too many family members about how we were too late when I knew it was because we were understaffed and underfunded. I have had to bury comrades and console the wives and children of many of our fallen. I have spoken at funerals, gave out flags, and medals to them as well.

I have been bitten, spat on, kicked, punched, vomited on, urinated on, bled on, crapped on, and called many racial slurs in the performance of my duties. I have once started an IV right through the middle of a swastika on an injured biker.

I have seen the results of child abuse, spouse abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, smoking abuse, and elderly abuse. I have seen hoarders, suicides, murders, assaults, and beatings. I have images of burnt people, decapitations, lacerations, amputations, starvation, you name it I have seen it.

I am not asking for any sympathy on this. It is my chosen profession and I love my job. I just wonder why people say that my compensation is overly generous.


About burkforoakley

I call it like I see it . I love my city, I love my community and I want what is best for the people around me. Do the right thing, I will support you. Do the wrong thing, I will oppose you!
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2 Responses to Fire Fighter Pay and Compensation

  1. Bob says:

    Thank you, Vince Wells, for putting the human face to this issue. People have completely lost touch with the most important aspect of the discussion. This is about public safety and many times life or death.

    Instead we have been reduced to these ridiculous bean counter arguments. Doing public safety on the cheap, for some. For those who have that priority set, so be it. But at least be honest with yourselves that for the sake of possibly saving 50 cents a day you are putting public safety at great risk with the likelihood of a 50% reduction in fire stations. That, to me, is a horrible tradeoff.

    Read the arguments opposing the measure from the CoCoTax reps. You don’t see see public safety mentioned even in passing. It’s only about what it costs. It’s people pursuing a blind Howard Jarvis mindset and effectively putting a cost(in this case CHEAP) on human lives.

    This is a shameful discussion by these folks, because the primaries promoting the policy won’t even be subjected to the consequences. An upside down set of priorities, IMO, with the insult to injury being the fact that their arguments are totally illogical.

    I mean who argues you didn’t ask for enough in one sentence and in the next says you need to fail and then come back and ask for less?

  2. jeff b says:

    First of all if everyone paid their property tax bill on time and in full the county would be way better off. People who think they are somehow excused from paying their taxes properly are a significant burden on this county especially during these times. These people’s selfish behavior are directly creating risk for everyone.

    Anyone who has followed what I have said and written on this subject has to know that I do not support simply absorbing ECCFPD into Con Fire. That will not work and would make the situation worse. What I have proposed is a complete revision of the county’s entire fire and EMS function that will deliver ONE brand new highly leveraged entity with a wage, benefit and overhead structure that is much lower than exists today county wide. Most of the present employees would be offered employment but no doubt some jobs would be lost or some will be demoted with this plan. That is what happens when you leverage and when you cut out county administrative functions. Most importantly the burden on the tax payers of this county will be decreased at the same time the stability of fire/EMS jobs will be increased. I believe this plan would, over the long haul and across the broad population, improve public safety.

    What I propose will be hard for the politicos to step up to and the fire employees presently paid at the higher end of the scale will hate it (and might quit), and others might quit as well. But they can be replaced and this is the only way fix the problem short of taxing everyone to death so that this one particular job can keep a pay-benefit plan that is totally unsustainable in the ‘new normal’ economic conditions we live in.

    This can’t be made to be about having sympathy for fire department/EMS workers who help us on our worst day or the immense pressure/influence unions exert on elected officials….this has to for once be about making long term proper economic decisions that fit the NEW ‘normal’ situation we live in. Anyone would be hard pressed to argue that county government did not let pension liabilities get out of control. Now is the time to add stability and fix the overall situation. It will be hard, it will suck but it has to be done or the spiral into total economic collapse will continue. And if that happens the risk to pubic safety will be outrageous. Heck if even a big mouth supporting new taxation has a problematic history of paying basic property taxes how can you keep layering on more tax burden on without tackling the underlying issue that is the wages, benefits and overhead being too high to sustain under any realistic circumstance. And this situation is not unique to this county or to far east CCC so don’t just blame Prop whatever.

    To be clear….under my recommendation for a brand NEW fire/EMS department not every address served will be offered the identical level of service. In a diverse county under economic pressure there will have to be several service models and several ways service is deployed. I would expect many to see little change but I would expect some, especially rural, address to see significant changes. I would also expect crew sizes to vary, outside vendors to be used where needed and methods/models not currently utilized to be brought on-line. Not every vehicle will get replaced right on time and not every vehicle/uniform will match…sorry. It works in other places so it can work in CCC as well. These measures and increasing long-term stability of the fire/EMS jobs will improve public safety across the entire county.

    For those who say the county can’t put any of their discretionary funds into fire/EMS I say BS. If they can spend money on soda pop abatement they can spend money on fire/EMS. Right now I call on every supervisor to cut their own cost center overhead by 50% and put that money to fire/EMS. I bet if we put this concept to the voters it would pass by a resounding margin. No more multiple offices…if they want to meet locally with constituents they can meet at a very local library or fire station. But who am I kidding, these are the same people who have dodged this critical issue for years while building their own fiefdoms. If anyone has a problem with public safety being in jeopardy these are folks to hold accountable.

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