Just recently a nearby town published the yearly earnings of local firefighters and one of my coworkers made a comment to me that was along the lines of “…I can't believe how much the firefighters make! I should have been a firefighter…I can't believe the town pays them THAT much!”
At first, I was so enraged at his ignorance and the mere suggestion that the firefighters in his town were overpaid. Shouldn't he know better? However, before I ripped into him, I remembered that he doesn’t really know any firefighters personally and I suppose it does seem like “sticker shock” if you just look at the year-end earnings. I took this opportunity to educate him a little on the fire service and break down that “big” salary.
First of all, I have yet to meet a firefighter that’s rich. The words “firefighter” and “rich” in the same sentence doesn't even sound right. I have had the good fortune of meeting hundreds of firefighters at meetings, conferences, department gatherings, weddings, community events, and the gym. However, not one of them was wealthy. Almost all of them live in modest houses and might save up to refinish their basement (with the help of fellow firefighters, of course) or add a deck, if they are lucky.
I diplomatically took the time to explain to my coworker that the base salary is actually mediocre, at best. The “big” numbers in the newspaper were not a salary amount but rather a final number that included stipends, education, specialized training certifications, and undoubtedly lots of overtime. Most likely, that firefighter would have starved on his or her base salary alone. Instead, they were able to make ends meet by taking on additional duties and working extra shifts. It’s kind of a double edged sword if you ask me: It’s very nice to have the opportunity to make additional money if you are saving for something in particular. However, it also means that you give up time with your family, weekend plans, or a good night’s sleep to make a few more bucks. Not to mention, most firefighters I know have a second job plowing, delivering oil, installing windows, landscaping, laying brick, or in carpentry. I'm pretty sure most of them wouldn't choose to spend their free time doing hard manual labor if they were rolling in the dough.
I can guarantee that the salary you read in the paper didn't tell the whole story. It should have had a little asterisk next to it with a disclaimer noting “actual results will vary” just like a diet pill that seems too good to be true. Those numbers didn't say how many extra hours they put in, how many holidays were missed, the Tball games or school plays they had to hear about the next day, how many hours of sleep were lost or interrupted, and all the times they said “goodnight” over the phone instead of in person.
And then there is the inherent risks of this job: The stresses, the health effects, and the safety risks. I'll never forget the time my husband came home from work after responding to a serious car accident in the middle of the night. The driver had hit a tree head-on, sustained life-threatening injuries, and needed to be cut out of the car. The first responders worked hard to extricate the patient and administer care to save his life.
Unfortunately, they also had come in contact with blood at the scene and later learned that the driver was positive for HIV and Hepatitis C. I was four months pregnant with twins at the time so just try to imagine my horror when I learned that my husband had been exposed and, as a precaution, required monitoring of his blood and had the option of taking a toxic cocktail to flush his system of any disease. With two little ones on the way, this profession took on a whole new meaning for me. Firefighting was no longer a cool, attractive job—it was dirty, dangerous, and scary, too. The risks are real and the impacts are far-reaching. If anything, firefighters are not paid enough to provide this service and go to great lengths to save anyone in our community that needs help.
Like most people, when we were looking to purchase a family home, I spent a lot of time scouring online listings and comparing different properties. I was drawn to places with an updated kitchen, a large yard, extra bedrooms, and hardwood floors. Things like “move-in ready” and “wooded lot” and “extra storage” caught my eye and I was prepared to pay extra for these desirable qualities. However, my husband only had one request: He wanted to live in a town with full time police, fire, and EMS services. Admittedly, that never even crossed my mind. I guess I just assumed that if I called 911, someone would come to help me but I never thought about the cost to the community. As a taxpayer, my husband was adamant that part of our taxes to go toward supporting the emergency services because one day, we just might need their help. When seconds count, he wanted to know that emergency personnel are ready to respond. They provide a critical service but, like most things, it does come with a price tag. Can you think of anything more important to spend your money on?
I read a great quote once and it said, “A person’s true wealth is the good they do in this world.” If there is any truth to that, then I guess my coworker was right—firefighters really are rich, after all.
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Loren Davine, M.Ed., C.A.G.S., is the Executive Director of NoFires, Inc. and a former high school guidance counselor. She is also a full-time mom and the wife of Deputy Fire Chief Jon Davine. Loren has been a member of Pioneer Valley Crossfit since 2008 and offers a unique perspective to our community on family, fitness, and fire safety for juvenile firesetters.
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