Fire fighter myths used to bamboozle taxpayers

fire fighter myth v emergency medical responseFire fighter myths are used by unions to fool taxpayers into spending every last dime on Contra Costa fire districts that are fundamentally bankrupt. There are nine fire districts in the county and most are suffering from pension, benefit, and health care extravagance; although they will tell you the problem is a reduction in property tax revenue due to the “great recession.”

The reduction in property tax revenue is righting itself as the economy recovers, but the financial health of spendthrift fire districts financial situation continue to deteriorate as pension and retiree health care costs skyrocket over the next five year and beyond.

How does one know if pensions are the problem with fire district financing? That’s easy…

- Read the information in newspapers or in various industry and Fire District reports or go to a town hall meeting on Fire District issues and never see the word pension on any PowerPoint presentation.

- Read Tom Barnidge’s columns in the Times on Fire District finance issues and never see the word pension mentioned as the problem or part of the solution.

- Talk to a Fire District Board member and never hear the word pension.

- Read the County’s consultant study on fixing ConFire’s financial situation and never see the word pension.
In other words, it is the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room that, for various reasons, no one wants to acknowledge or even whisper the word.

So as this discussion intensifies it is a good time to reflect on a few basics, a few “myths” about fire services as we can now see them.

This week I will discuss two of those fire fighter myths unions and their politicians will trot out to justify their supposed indispensable extravagant expense.

The first of fire fighter myths is that firefighters must retire early as they face dangerous working conditions. Or, as one spouse yelled out at a recent town hall meeting on fire services in her city: “Every time my husband leaves for work, I don’t know if I will see him alive again.” The same, I would like to point out, could be said for many occupations.

Fire fighter myths, #1: Fire Fighting is the Most Dangerous Job

In 2012 the Bureau of Labor Statistics measured the “Most dangerous Jobs in America; firefighters did not make the top 15 list. Here is a list of the top most dangerous jobs as compiled by the Bureau:

dangerous jobs

The list was compiled nationwide; each industry was measured by the number of deaths per one thousand workers. As you can see from the list, driving is the most dangerous activity workers can engage in. Forty-one percent of all fatal accidents occur in transportation related incidents; 58% of these deaths occur on highways. There is a reason salesmen die at a greater rate than most professions.

The second highest cause of worker deaths is “assaults and violent acts”; there were 767 workers killed in 2012 by violence; 463 homicides and 225 suicides.

“Slips, falls, and trips” killed 668 workers during the year and 509 workers were fatally injured after being struck by equipment or objects on the job.

This does not mean in anyway, that fighting fires is not dangerous. But it does show that we have ameliorated the danger through work protocols and rules that protect the worker; for example, in East Contra Costa, five fighters must be at the scene before two—always two-can—enter a burning structure. We also provide fire fighters with the tools and equipment necessary to make their jobs dangerous. And, there is one more critical reason the fire fighters job is less dangerous as we will see in myth number two.

Fire fighter myths, #2: Fire Fighters number one job is fighting fires

Surprisingly, standard fire fighter myths contend that fire fighters spend most of their waking hours fighting fires. This was once true, but hardly the case these days.

Today’s Contra Costa Fire fighters spend most of their day answering Advanced or Basic medical calls.

The County Board of Supervisors recently verified this information with a consulting study by Fitch and Associates. The $185,000 study was conducted to arrive at alternatives to current operating procedures that could reverse Confire’s deteriorating financial condition.

Although the study appears to define operation issues well and offers three possible scenarios for future operation, it provided no insight in solving the District’s financial situation. The report simply plays around the edges of the financial collapse.

The Fitch study concluded that 78% of calls and 56% of fire fighter time away from the stations were for medical assistance, not fires.

The world has changed, the world of fire fighting has changed significantly. With new construction materials and techniques, there are fewer fires than ever before. From reviewing operations reports from various fire districts in the county, it appears there are less than 2 fires per day across all districts in the county combined.

Fire Districts, Dan Borenstein of the Times reports, “have morphed from fighting blazes to providing emergency medical services.”

Vince Wells President of Local 1230 of the United Professional Fire Fighters of Contra Costa County would remind us, and has reminded the County Board of Supervisors, that “all fires are not the same” and that fighting the Mt. Diablo fire is different from fighting a car fire.

But the question remains: can the public afford to let fire fighters retire at age 50, often the peak of their career, and be compensated for approximately 30 years at 90% or more of their pay? If so, why? And can we afford to continue with the mix of personnel, fire trucks and other equipment currently in use to provide the services delivered today?

When looking at the facts and numbers, the answer appears to be no to both questions. Public due diligence must ignore fire fighter myths and work with reality.

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  1. ECT says

    Wine rep must be sippin too much of the wine that he reps. Don’t pass your bull shit here. These people are adults with common sense not a pipe dream. Go back to the lobbyist ECT site for the fire unions. Where you can get a full run down in the terrible dangerous day as a firefighter posted by bleeding heart. That kind of crap doesn’t hold up to reality. Reality is the current cost for a firefighter is way over the amount the public is willing to pay. End of story.

  2. Wine Rep says

    There is no doubt that Pensions are a piece of the puzzle. One problem is that your article and comments inaccurately (or omit) the fact that the current firefighting force pay more for pension, then they will actually receive in retirement. A firefighter paying 24-28% of their salary towards pension for 30 years, with compounding interest, ends up with over 2.5 million in their contributions alone. Take a 100K+ salary out every year, and the initial investment out runs the pension payment, and even grows.
    Problem # 2, Firefighting is not a dangerous job. Not so fast Mr. Bray. We can all “Cherry Pick” our statistics, but when you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and look at Injury Rate accompanied with fatalities. the picture changes a little bit.:
    You are correct, that today’s fire departments are “all risk” and respond to more than just fires. They do also respond to: medical calls, falls, vehicle accidents, water rescues, cliff rescues, chemical/refinery incidents, utility emergencies (power lines down, gas leaks), flooding conditions, hazardous materials releases and of course fires involving: buildings, homes, vehicles, grass/vegetation, tanker trucks, rail cars, etc. The biggest problem to Fire Districts in this county have been the greedy redevelopment agencies that have siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars out of budgets for many years to divert to developers of grandiose projects, like that around the Pleasant Hill Bart Station.

  3. Kris Hunt says

    Unfortunately, the County Board of Supervisors (which also acts as the Board for ConFire) has not pushed the pension issue. At the recent hearing they were all set to talk about a parcel tax. The other “p” word is apparently off limits. But they cannot raise taxes fast enough to cover the pension and retiree health care problem. Last attempt they tried to pass a tax that a poll showed voters might vote for if there was no opposition. I proudly wrote the ballot argument against it.

    When they put up the next tax, I am sure they will once again put forth an amount that is poll-driven, not what they would really need to get themselves out of this ever-growing fiscal mess. This has got to end, but with such a sympathetic board it seems unlikely that there will be changes.

  4. Chuck says

    There is no argument about the low pay for east county FF. Bethel Island pays 14%, Brentwood 7% and Oakley 5%. That in itself is problematic because B.I. doesn’t even have a station any longer. However, each year the unfunded liability for ECCFPD increases by about a million dollars while the general fund depletes.There unfunded debt has risen to about 13 million. This is too much for such a small and short lived department. This reinforces your comment about the pension issue that is eating away at current and future firefighters ability to get increased compensation. The only short term for east county is merge with con fire until the pension and funding issues are dealt with.

  5. Chuck says

    I think the 2% at 60 would correct the pension cash contribution that is bankrupting fire districts. If the individual firefighters wants better they can have additional funds taken out of their check and applied to their pension.
    This issue needs to be resolves very soon as the grant bailouts will seize to exist. There will be no more bailout leaving the county to foot the bill. As it stands now the unfunded liability is a huge debt to the county and ever increasing. It will not go away by itself and the fire districts should not depend on an automatic bailout with tax ballots. The Board of Supervisors need to act quickly to address this before service conditions to the public become critical and lives are lost..

    • says

      Changing public pensions to defined contribution is the only first serious step. I would rather pay higher salaries for public safety with less long-term costs of funding extravagant pensions. Medical benefits would also need to match private sector matching. Overtime and vacation time has to be used or lost per annum and not carried over for 30 years allowing a retiree not to work for a year or more at full salary before they even retire! And why should the taxpayer pay 20x in 2014 for a vacation day saved in 1984? That’s just a killer perk and should be eliminated. Worker comp rules added on to state requirements by municipalities for public safety should also be reformed from full salary to a much lower rate for temporary disability that will still be 30%+ above any other worker getting the max $200 per week when hurt on the job. Such a move would incentivize recovery and penalize malingerers and bogus pysch and stress claims.

    • says

      I like your solution, Chuck, even though it is more than it should be. Your 2% at 60 is the same as a CALStrs (teacher) pention in California.

      Let me compare my Social Security pension with the current fire/police 3% at 50 and teach 2% at 60.

      When I retired from my private sector job I took my social Security pension at 62. It was 15% of my highest years’ pay. I also had a 401(K) that I had contributed to for many years. So even the reduced pension for fire fighters that would equal a teacher’s pension is 4 times the average private sector workers’ pension.
      I would prefer a lower defined benefit plan for fire fighters (and all government employees) combined with a defined contribution plan for those workers who want to retire earlier or with a larger pension. We should not, by the way, forget that in some districts fire fighters pay considerably more for their pension than other private or public employees and, in some cases, some employees (especially policemen) have paid little , if anything at all.

  6. Hal Bray says

    Richard; here is a Legislative Analyst Office discussion on pension formulas

    It’s a long explanation (7 pages) as it explains different categories of workers. My wife is a retired teacher; her CalSTRS pension is a “2% at 60″ pension”. Police and fire are 3% at 50 meaning 50 is the earliest they can receive the pension. Just like social security can be taken at 62 or 66. Here is from the first paragraph of the LAO report:

    Most California public employees (including some part-time employees) are eligible to earn “defined benefit” pensions—pensions that pay a specific amount after retirement that is generally based on the employee’s age at retirement, years of service, salary, and type of work assignment. For example, a typical state office worker who retires this year with five or more years of service is eligible for a defined benefit pension at age 55 equal to 2 percent of his or her highest single working year’s salary multiplied by the number of years of service upon retirement (known as the “2 percent at 55″ benefit formula). Therefore, after working for 25 years, such a retiree would be eligible to receive at age 55 a defined benefit roughly equal to 50 percent of his or her highest single year’s pay.

  7. Richard Colman says

    Daniel Borenstein, in a February 4, 2014, column, wrote the following:

    “The age fix stems from pension increases approved in 1999 by state legislators and then-Gov. Gray Davis. CHP [California Highway Patrol] officers were promised 3 percent of top salary for every year on the job, with a 90 percent maximum, if they worked to at least age 50.

    Thus, someone with 30 years’ experience can retire with 90 percent of salary — and no longer have to make pension system contributions.”

    Dan Borenstein, as you know, writes for the Contra Costa Times. The above quotation is taken from a Borenstein column that appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News on Feb. 4, 2014.

    Borenstein has been writing about public-worker pensions for many years.

    The term “three percent at 30″ means 3 percent of final salary multiplied by 30 years of employment. [For example, if the final salary is $100,000, then 3% of $100,000 = $3,000. 30 years multiplied by $3,000 per year = $90,000 per year.]

  8. ECT says

    Over in east county I just got the very expensive color flyer suggesting my 911 may not work if I do not pay. I see pictures of what looks like paramedics attending to a victim. We have no paramedics in the fire district and 911 is not going to be affected. Paramedics are provided by county health ambulance service. It has nothing to do with this new tax. It totally disgusts me that this expensive misleading flyer was even sent out knowing the information it asks for is already known. What is a total waste. The questions are absurd while it asks for your name and address and you have to put a stamp to send it back. The ECCFPD board is dysfunctional as the people trying to justify it on other blogs. So much bull is being spread out how great a firefighter is. Firefighters are awesome but lets not choke on some of the garbage that ” a day in the life of a firefighter ” was posted on Mike Burkholders site East County Today. That site is a joke. Everybody has a job and some are more dangerous than others so what, no one twisted my arm to do what I do. It’s more dangerous by far then a firefighter, pays less, but that doesn’t make me prima donna. The fire districts in this county need to get their act together. Maybe new unions might help.

    • says

      I too live in East County and have received the same flyer (or it sounds like the same flyer). The district hired a consultant for $120,000 to help them with passing a parcel tax. This includes communications with the public, which is where this flyer would have come from. The flyer is not meant to show that 911 will not work, but that response times will go up due to station closures.

      The district is in a real bind. It has, by far, the lowest paid fire fighters in the County and receives the lowest apportionment of property taxes of any fire district (it gets 6% of your 1% property tax, whereas most fire districts in the county get 14-15%). That said the Board and the County have done little, if anything, to resolve the financial situation since receiving the SAFER grant. The District and the County should, as recommended in 2009 by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) look at alternatives, such as consolidating all fire districts in the county.

      The County, and the various agencies within the county, must also begin to get serious about pension reform if we are to achieve any real success in funding any government agencies over the next decade as pension costs are rising substantially over their already high costs today.