Episode 424: How Much Is A Firefighter Worth? : Planet Money Firefighters don't go to fires as much as much as they used to. Yet the fire department is still set up the same way. What should change?
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Episode 424: How Much Is A Firefighter Worth?

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Episode 424: How Much Is A Firefighter Worth?

Episode 424: How Much Is A Firefighter Worth?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/467984297/467992881" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

Hey, everyone. It's Robert Smith here. We pulled one of our favorite shows from our archives for you today. It's about what happens when a fire department gets into some financial trouble. The reporters are Zoe Chace and Caitlin Kenney, and they reported it back in 2012. You'll enjoy it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CAITLIN KENNEY, BYLINE: There's this huge ideological debate going on right now in our country over what we want from our government and what we're willing to pay for it.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: And the best place to see this debate is not City Hall, not some council meeting. It's right here at Contra Costa Fire Protection District Station Six, Concord, Calif.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Back side of Premier Inn.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You guys get a call...

CHACE: Really?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...Might as well just stay on.

CHACE: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: You all right?

KENNEY: Yup.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

CHACE: So we're actually perched way up high in the back seats of this 40-foot truck, and right in front of me and Caitlin are these long axes hanging right by our feet. It's so loud inside the truck that the guys wear these headphones as if they're in a helicopter to talk to each other. It's kind of an exciting moment.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Forty-eight con firetruck six.

KENNEY: We're speeding through town. We're passing these little bungalows, very typical Northern California. And then in less than five minutes, we arrive where we're supposed to be. It's the parking lot of this motel. But there's no smoke. There's no fire. And even though it only took us to five minutes to get here, already on scene are the police department and the local ambulance company.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: What's happening, guys?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Not much, another awesome day at the Premier Inn.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Yup.

CHACE: Just another awesome day at the Premier Inn, the police say. And that's because the Premier Inn is sort of the opposite of what the name suggests. It's this motel where the county places low-income people who need a place to live. And this place gets a lot of emergency calls.

KENNEY: Today, the problem's on the second floor. We go upstairs and duck inside, and there's a mostly naked man lying in a bed struggling to breathe. The room reeks of urine.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Hey, what's your name?

KENNEY: Brent Beling, the firefighter paramedic on our truck, immediately goes to work. He's pricking the guy's finger, testing his blood, trying to figure out what's going on. The cops in the room find this huge bag of pills under the bed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Well, there's a whole bag. Look at that, jackpot.

CHACE: The strange thing about the scene is while this is going on, there's this giant firetruck outside doing nothing. And two of the firefighters stand around with not much to do. The paramedics roll the guy on the bed into a tarp, and they actually bump past us on the way down the stairs. Don Johansen drives the fire truck, and he's standing next to me while the medical guys go by.

DON JOHANSEN: I mean, this is just - this is life.

CHACE: Would you rather it were a fire, though?

JOHANSEN: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

CHACE: Why?

JOHANSEN: Because that's what we signed up to do. That - I mean, it - basically, that's much more fun for us to go to fires.

KENNEY: The firefighters here in Contra Costa County are like firefighters across the nation. They just don't go to fires as much anymore. According to the National Fire Protection Association, fire departments respond to way less fires, 40 percent less than they did about 30 years ago. Fires just don't happen as much anymore. Sprinklers, new building techniques, places are less likely to burn than they used to. And yet the fire department is still set up in the same way, big trucks, lots of fire stations, lots and lots of expensive firefighters.

CHACE: And they still go out a lot but mostly to calls like these. Here's Don again.

JOHANSEN: And it gets to that point where especially when you work at a busy station like we do and you run 12, 15 calls a day and shift after shift and it's just medical call, medical call, medical call, you know, finally, at some point, somebody will go, man, we haven't had a fire in a while, you know. And then - and it does, and it helps break up the mundane just in and out running medical calls all the time because we drive on a fire engine.

CHACE: That fire engine idling in the parking lot outside, it's become a symbol of the question that lots of people here are asking. If everything's changing for the fire department, why are we paying for it in the same way?

KENNEY: These days you hear a lot about the cost of government. How much should we pay for government services? In Contra Costa, as in a lot of places all over the country, it's a very personal question. Here it boils down to this. What's a firefighter worth these days?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENNEY: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Caitlin Kenney.

CHACE: I'm Zoe Chace, today, on the show, what happens when your heroes cost too much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENNEY: So the fire truck idling in the parking lot, that's the easy cost to see. Those trucks don't come cheap. They eat up a lot of gas, and you have to have people to drive them. That truck is one reason people are wondering about how much they're paying for their fire department.

CHACE: But there's another reason that's much harder to see, arguably a much bigger problem, the pensions. A huge part of the money that people around here are paying for their fire department is not going to salaries. It's going to retirements, what today's firefighters will get when they retire.

KENNEY: And if things stay the same, the amount of taxpayer money going to firefighter retirements is going to grow and grow and grow. And this problem, it's been developing for a while now.

CHACE: We're going to start the little quick history here of this problem back when California's economy was booming. They had the dot-com boom of the late '90s, of course. And then we have this thing with the property values, right, right after that. Property values start to climb in the early 2000s. And the guy that was in charge of the firefighters' union at that time, his name was Lou Paulson. He was the head of the union, early 2000s, and he saw all this California money on the table.

LOU PAULSON: The fire district was doing well. It was the property tax, you know. They're funded by property tax. And then the housing boom in California was going crazy, and the fire district and everybody else in the county benefited from that.

KENNEY: So the firefighters thought, we should benefit, too. Their pension fund was making a lot of money on its investments, and things looked good. So they worked out a deal to take their compensation in form of a sweeter retirement.

CHACE: At the time, this was common across California and across the country. And you can see why. The money doesn't come up front. The public workers get this great deal a little later. And Lou Paulson, the head of the firefighters' union then, says everyone was signing off on it.

PAULSON: There was plenty of money around. Historically, we went back and looked at it and said - collectively and said, look, this system's doing very well. We had the retirement board involved. We had retirement folks. We had actuaries. Everybody looked at it and said, hey, this is good. And I think, you know, to go back to that time, things were really good, and it looked really good.

KENNEY: How good, Lou came away with a super sweet deal for the firefighters. They could retire at age 50 with up to 90 percent of their final salary guaranteed for the rest of their lives no matter what happened in the economy. And this was a huge increase from the deal they had before.

CHACE: Now as part of this deal, the firefighters agreed to pay a much bigger chunk of their salary into the pension system. But that was only going forward. So think about it like this. If you were 49 when the deal was passed and then you retired a year later, you got this full brand-new benefit without paying that much into it.

KENNEY: The deal was so sweet that lots of firefighters who'd planned on sticking around retired right after it went into place. According to the local paper, in just one year, the number of departing Contra Costa firefighters more than tripled.

CHACE: So suddenly, everyone's promised a lot more money at retirement. But the pool of money in the pension fund didn't actually get so much bigger. The idea was things are so good right now, what with the property taxes, the investment returns, we can afford to make bigger promises.

KENNEY: And it wasn't just Contra Costa. All over the country, local governments made lots of promises to their workers based on the assumption that the good times would go on forever.

CHACE: They did not. We now know what happened. The housing market crashed. The fire department, remember, is funded by property taxes.

KENNEY: The stock market crashed, and the firefighter pension fund started earning less and less on their investments.

CHACE: And it was exactly at this moment that Vince Wells start his new job, and that job is president of the local firefighters' union, its first black president elected in 2008. And this did lead to an obvious nickname.

VINCE WELLS: Obama, that's what a lot of people call me.

CHACE: (Laughter) Really?

WELLS: Yeah, that's my nickname.

CHACE: Are you one of the only black guys around?

WELLS: Well, I'm the only black guy, but at the same time, I got the job, right...

CHACE: Yeah.

WELLS: ...In 2008...

CHACE: Oh.

WELLS: ...When the market crashed.

CHACE: And like the real President Obama, he was elected at a tough time to be the leader. Historically, the firefighters' union president in Contra Costa County had one job. Get more, more money, more benefits, more vacation, whatever. That's the job.

KENNEY: But in 2008, there was no thought of asking for more.

WELLS: And so everything I've been doing is giving up, is negotiating and giving back, never been in a positive environment to ask for anything.

CHACE: All Vince could ask for were concessions from the rank and file. And in 2009, with money so tight, he did have this pretty stark choice. The fire department could either close down fire stations or take a salary cut.

KENNEY: So, Vince got the firefighters to agree to a 10 percent salary cut, and the stations stayed open. But the problem, of course, didn't go away. The housing market just wasn't coming back and either was the stock market. The hole in the fire department budget just kept getting bigger and bigger.

CHACE: And so, Vince and the fire department decide to explore this third option. They figured there's one more pool of money they haven't tapped, the voters. They decided to ask the taxpayers of Contra Costa County for extra money.

KENNEY: Of course, the voters, people love firefighters. I mean, think about it. From the time a little kid can reach up and grab something, they want to play with firetrucks. They dress up like firemen. Firefighters are the stars of the local parades. They ride in on their big red engines, and people cheer.

CHACE: And the firefighters thought, people, actually, they do love us. They know what we do, and they know the risks we take and especially, remember, after 9/11. Dave George is a retired firefighter here in Contra Costa, and he remembers that time.

DAVE GEORGE: I was on duty right on 9/11, and we - the next couple of days, we'd walk into the store, and we'd be in line just buying our stuff and just wanted to blend in with the crowd, and people would just - I'd find hands on my shoulders, just rubbing my shoulder, or I'd just end up turning around, and there would be some lady, thank you for what you do. And or we would go into the coffee shop. They'd say, let me get you your coffee for you or something like that or, you know, no, no, please, please, we don't want that.

KENNEY: The firefighters thought, OK, we can bank on this goodwill. They came up with a plan. The fire department would put a measure on the ballot. Everyone who owns a house in the county would have to pay an extra 75 bucks a year, 75 bucks a year. As we say in public radio, that's less than the cost of a cup of coffee per day.

CHACE: They figured all we got to do is let's just lay out this situation. They created this bare-bones ad for the ballot measure. It's really stark. It's just a firefighter standing against a wall making his pitch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: Having the fire service available for you is like having an insurance policy. You don't use it every day, but when you do use it, you want it to work, and you want it to be simple for you.

KENNEY: It kind of looks like they did it in one take.

CHACE: Totally.

KENNEY: It's not sleek. It's not fancy. But remember, people love firefighters. And the argument they were making was compelling. If you don't give us this money, some stations will close. It'll take longer for us to get to you when you have an emergency, and that means people may die.

CHACE: But what the firefighters didn't realize is that just as the nature of the job had changed, the way people feel about their firefighters was also changing. The voters here weren't as worried about fires, really. But the voters were really worried about money. And while the firefighters were putting out their little ad, there was this very aggressive campaign forming against them.

KENNEY: At the local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times, columnist Dan Borenstein had been writing for years about all of the problems at the fire department, the way the business was changing, the way pension costs were going through the roof. And when he saw that they were putting a measure on the ballot to ask for more money, it made him really angry.

DAN BORENSTEIN: Well, after 10 years of being driven by pension costs and then this on top of it, we said, no. We're not going to let you put the cart before the horse. You got to look at some - you've got to show us that you're serious about controlling costs before we're willing to go along with the tax increase.

CHACE: Dan Borenstein wrote this series of editorials, no, no more money for firefighters. He framed the request for a tax increase in much more fundamental terms. What kind of fire department do we want to have here? What should they be doing? How much can we actually afford to pay for their retirements? In other words, what are we getting when we pay for this government service?

KENNEY: And of course, in a small area like Contra Costa, a fight like this can get personal quickly. A group called the Contra Costa Taxpayer Association got a hold of a list of every single retired firefighter and how much they were getting in retirement, and they published the names of everyone who is making more than $100,000 a year from their pensions. Lots of retired firefighters were on that list. They called it the $100,000 Club.

CHACE: One of those names is Jaad Ajlouny. All of a sudden, everybody in town knew that 55-year-old retired fire captain Jaad Ajlouny is currently collecting $121,000 a year in retirement. And remember, this is a relatively small area.

JAAD AJLOUNY: Just sitting around in a bar having - you know, minding my own business, and a guy yells over, hey, Jaad, come on over here and buy me a drink with that retirement I paid for. You know, I never expected it like this. And September 11, 2001 happened, and you couldn't - it was embarrassing to go to the grocery store. People, oh, you guys are such heroes and this and that. No, no, we're just doing a job. Thanks, didn't want to be a hero then, don't want to be a goat now. And it's - you know, you can go from hero to goat in 60 seconds, and I think firefighters have.

KENNEY: In addition to making Jaad Ajlouny a public enemy, this campaign succeeded in reframing the debate. It wasn't, for less than the cost of a cup of coffee, we'll keep you safe and rescue you from burning buildings. It was throwing good money after bad. These pensions are costing us too much money.

CHACE: It got to the point where people resented the argument the firefighters were making. And I met one of these guys who voted no on this measure at a restaurant downtown. His name is Matt Heavy. He works in construction in the area, and he's had a couple tough years.

MATT HEAVY: They put it to where it was either you - I felt hostage. You either pay the extra money, or we're going to start shutting down stations. And the bottom line is the reason that they're asking for the money is because the pensions are just skyrocketing.

KENNEY: In the end, there are enough Matts out there that the measure didn't pass.

CHACE: And that's where we are today in Contra Costa.

KENNEY: To deal with today's problems, the fire department has to look at other options, and one of those is to totally reimagine what they do, get much smaller, do what they do now with less money and less people. And people right now in Contra Costa are asking about this. Do we want to send a firetruck to a medical emergency all the time? What if we had paramedics in the fire station instead of firefighters? Do we need the fire department we currently have?

CHACE: Back out on the call, remember, the Premier Inn, the firetruck is now on route to the hospital following the ambulance, and a new call comes over the radio, this old, very familiar, very rare call.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: Structure fire, we're missing it. We'd be going to a fire...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ha.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: ...And we're missing it. We can't go.

CHACE: They're still not done with the medical, the guy who seemed like he OD'ed (ph). But just a minute or so later, the call comes back out on the radio, and it turns out they're not missing anything.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: Go ahead and cancel all incoming. This is a dryer.

KENNEY: Cancel all incoming, the dispatcher says, it was just dryer steam.

CHACE: The guys on the truck are used to being disappointed. Everyone, including the firefighters themselves, wants their jobs to change. Firefighters told us straight up, we want more fires. We want our jobs to be more like they were. That is not the change that's coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHACE: I'm Zoe Chace.

KENNEY: I'm Caitlin Kenney. Thanks for listening.

SMITH: I wanted to break in here with a quick update on this story. It originally aired in 2012. And the Contra Costa Fire Protection District is still paying those huge pensions. Firefighters hired after 2012 will not get as much money when they retire. But fire chief Jeff Carman says the department won't see those savings for a few more years. Still, he did tell us that the district's doing way better financially than they were in 2012. They have closed some stations. They have cut some of their costs. They don't send a fire engine to every medical call anymore. But the biggest reason finances are better, the housing market picked up, more property taxes. We always love to hear what you think of the show. Leave us a comment on our Facebook page or tweet at us. We're @planetmoney. Or you can email us at planetmoney@npr.org.

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