Top Ten Considerations on Which Department to Work For

fctoptenToday, I offer you the top ten considerations on which department to work for.

When young bucks go looking for a job, they mostly consider pay, how many fires, and location. These are great places to start when considering departments, but they aren’t neccesarily the most important. There are many more considerations. Some that you might not think about when looking around right out of college or maybe even high school.

I remember when I was looking for a job. I didn’t think about many of these. I knew the salaries varied, and I knew a lot about the departments I lived near. Naturally, I was hired by a department 3 hours away. I had to change my whole life around, but I was very happy when I got on the job and enjoyed working for the department.

Who would have thought that 10 years in I would be realizing that there are huge issues with my choice. Ones that could be detrimental to my future. From what I have learned, there is a lot more to being a firefighter than just fighting fire. The need to ensure you can make a smooth and affordable transition into retirement is paramount. In order to provide the best opportunities for yourself be sure to do your homework on the following:

10. Recruit School and Training

A unified recruit school that teaches FFI, FFII, Hazmat Ops, EMT, EVOC, HTR modules, Policies, SOP’s, and other training is imperative in ensuring firefighters are starting off on the right foot. Whether or not you have had some or all of the training before, it provides a base level for everyone to start from. Yourself, your peers, your company officers, and others will have a keen understanding of your capabilities once you graduate recruit school. Another thing to take into consideration here is future training opportunities, on duty training, and specialized training disciplines (swift water rescue, heavy technical rescue, extrication) for the future.

9. Salary

This is probably the biggest comparison value that firefighters make between one department and another. There is merit to this analysis, however some departments make up with other benefits where they lack in salaries. Don’t get tunnel vision though. Keep reading!

8. Median Age of Employees

You might ask why this is important. This little detail can tell a lot about a department. First of all, if the age is high it might indicate that there will be a lot of retirements coming up. This will provide opportunity to move up the food chain. However, it may also indicate that the firefighters have to work longer to have a decent retirement. On the other hand, if the department is real young this may indicate that ranking officers will keep promotions to a minimum for a long time. The advantage might be that you will be able to retire earlier with a decent retirement and pension. Find out the facts.

7. Department history on Layoffs

Wouldn’t is suck to get hired on with a department you like and a job you love only to get laid off? Layoffs have not been very popular or common in U.S. fire departments, but we are seeing an increase in occurance. Simply find out if it has ever happened, why it happened, and ask around on the chances of it happening again. Most departments utilize attrition (they don’t rehire for a position once someone retires) when they are downsizing instead of laying employees off.

6. City Paid Benefits

Benefits include pension, health insurance, college tuition, disability, supplemental retirement, supplemental insurance, life insurance, child care, among other things. How much is your City/County/Locality currently paying for these benefits? With the current economy has the locality cut funding to any of these.

5. Staffing, Stations, Apparatus

is the minimum staffing on various apparatus? Anything less than 3 on an engine or ladder I would be hesitant to apply to. Does the department have numerous vacancies? Do they simply mark apparatus out of service due to manpower deficiencies or do they pay overtime? Do they have enough stations to cover the locality? Is their apparatus fleet falling apart or are they proactive in replacing aging apparatus?

4. Contracts/Union/Arbitration

Localities and employees who work under a contract have certain benefits. Contracts define schedules, pay, benefits, grievances, staffing, among many other things. Contracts are not a cure all, but they usually define benefits that non-contract firefighters may not enjoy. The majority of Union firefighters in the U.S. are members of a chapter (Local) of the International Association of Fire Fighters. The Local chapters might also be a part of a State organization. The IAFF offers assistance in all aspects of firefighting for their members, State associations, and Local chapters. There are also some firefighters who are members of other Unions.

3. Health Insurance

Food, water, clothing, shelter, health insurance. There are a few things that I must provide to my family. Health insurance premiums have gone through the roof recently. One huge benefit offered to some firefighters is free health insurance for retirees. While this option may not be available to all, it is certainly something I wish I had. Many departments are on the other end of the spectrum actually raising premiums on retirees along with current employees. This is one of those benefits that would offset a lower starting salary! Make sure the department you are seeking employment with offers AFFORDABLE health care.

2. Disability Retirement

Some of you may be asking yourself why in the world disability retirement is on this list, least of all number 2. I will tell you, because many firefighters do not have a decent disability retirement policy. Let me ask you this. If you are hurt in the line of duty, to the point that you cannot be a firefighter anymore, don’t you feel that you should be given a disability retirement? Meaning not having to work and awarded a decent retirement for giving yourself for your locality, for your profession, for the people you are protecting. I don’t think that is asking too much. However, we have firefighters out there who are forced to work other jobs within their municipality that they didn’t sign up for instead of getting a fair shake for their disability. Make sure you fully understand what will happen to you if you end up disabled while on duty!

1. Retirement/Pension

I don’t know about you, but I DO NOT want to work my entire life. While we may not make 6 digits and work in the private sector, we do get to enjoy the benefits of a pension. Most pensions are paid for 100% by the locality. However, recently public pension systems are under attack. The Defined Benefit vs. Defined Contribution Pension debate has heated up and could be detrimental to your ability to retire as you would like. Make sure you fully understand what you will get when you retire.

Other points on Retirement include:

  • What percentage of pay will you get when you retire?
  • How do they figure your retirement?
  • How many years will you have to work for a full retirement?
  • Some will get a set percentage of the last 3 years of work at a certain year. Example – 60% at 30 years of service.
  • Some will have a multiplier like 2.5% per year of work. Example – 30 years of work = 75% of the average of your last 3 years of service.
  • Most will have a cap on the percentage making any increase past your max. % being any difference in pay due to your increase over the past 3 years of service.
  • Yet some firefighters walk away with 100% of their average over their last 3 years of service at a set years of service.

So there you have it. All you snotty nosed 21 year olds who are ready to show all those “old timers” how you are Gods Gift to the Fire Service, make sure you are seeking employment with a decent locality! Salaries aren’t everything. You have to have a total package when it comes to employment!

Some other things to consider that didn’t make the top ten list are (in no particular order):

  • Vacation and holiday time
  • supplemental retirement (usually mostly employee paid with some employer match contributions)
  • Level of fire calls…there I said it. We have all been there…Now I am happy with some sleep and a ham sandwich.
  • What level of EMS certification will you be required to maintain? Some are forced to be ALS.
  • Policies and procedures – does your department make the grade?
  • Who is the Fire Chief, Fire Commissioner, and Local Administrator? Are they good guys or bad guys? Do they like firefighters?

I am sure there are other considerations that I didn’t think of. What do you think?