Thursday, June 23, 2011

W2 not quite that large

The June 20th edition of the Lincoln Journal Star contained a letter to the editor from Michael James urging Mayor Buetler and I to work towards reducing the compensation of firefighters. I welcome advice and input, but I would like to clarify some information in his letter. Mr. Smith stated that the average firefighter's compensation was over $77,000, and that for the Emergency Services Division the average was over$100,000.

That sounded implausible to me, particularly since the entire budget of Lincoln Fire and Rescue this year is $27,230,616 and the department has 301 employees. Dividing the later in to the former yields $90,467  per employee, and that would include the pro-rated per-employee cost of maintaining 16 facilities, over 25 apparatus, a sizable amount of equipment, quite a bit of diesel fuel, and all the other operating costs involved in an urban fire and rescue department.

I pulled a spreadsheet of every employee's end-of-the-year pay for 2010. This was total pay, which would include salary, overtime, holiday pay, and so forth--the bottom dollar on the final pay stub.  The average firefighter, from chief to rookie, was paid $70,139 last year.  That includes all the firefighters regardless of assignment--paramedics, fire apparatus operators, battalion chiefs, assistant chiefs, the works  Take out the top brass, and the average drops into the high 60's

While 70K is certainly a nice salary in Lincoln, the impression that the average firefighter is pushing 80-100K is a bit over they  top. Maybe the author was referring not to salary, but to the "total cost of ownership" which includes insurance premiums, worker's compensation costs, and so forth. These non-salary expenses of employees are there in every single job to varying degrees, public or private sector.  Rest assured, though, that the average pay on a firefighter's W2 was way under the figures quoted by Mr. James

Firefighters don't make the rules on their compensation.  It is senseless to fault the union that represents them for trying to get the best deal possible for its members: that's what a union is supposed to do, and it is neither sinister nor un-American.  In fact, playing politics is as American as apple pie.  People and groups of all manner use the political process to pursue what they perceive as their best interests and to try to get officials elected who see things the same way. They do so with varying degrees of success, and on occasion, he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.  Welcome to democracy.

It bears noting that the City doesn't make the rules on compensation either.  In Nebraska, the ultimate arbiter of public employee pay is the Commission of Industrial Relations, a creation of the State Legislature functioning under State statutes that establish the principal of comparability. The City effectively must pay its employees the same as similar jobs in similar cities as determined by the Commission. Suggesting that firefighters are overpaid and urging the Mayor and I to reduce their compensation is certainly Mr. James' prerogative, but right now, the rules of the game are set by State law.

I want citizens to have accurate information about firefighters' pay. They will have to decide for themselves whether they think that is too much, and if so, the remedy will need to start with a majority of Nebraska's State senators. They tweaked the law a little bit in the last legislative session, but it will be a while before we see what, if any, impact these changes have.

My interest is in having the best employees we can afford with the money the citizens are willing to pay for the service.  If there was no collective bargaining, we'd probably pay exactly like the non-union employers in the private sector: enough to attract and retain the type of employee that we feel we need to deliver the quality of services we desire, and to prevent them from jumping ship to our competitors who would work equally hard to lure the best ones away. Maybe the package necessary to do that would be lower, maybe not.

I can find hundreds of people who would be willing to serve as firefighter-paramedics or police officers for less than the women and men who hold those jobs now.  I'm not so sure we would be happy with the result.  I do not think that it is in the public interest for LF&R to become the place where paramedics cut their teeth before moving on to greener pastures as soon as they've got training and experience at our expense, and some of the folks who've offered to be police officers for reduced prices raise the hair on the back of my neck (which, by the way, is one of the few places on my head it is still located.)


Anonymous said...

Well said, chief/director. Finally, a reasonable voice cries out from the wilderness. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Do you have a similar figure for the average compensation at LPD?

Anonymous said...

On the subject of LFR: With the number of lift assists and inter-facility transfers of morbidly obese patients sadly trending upward, does LFR plan some sort of bariatric ambulance in the future?

Tom Casady said...


Not at my fingertips, but it is on my list of things to do. I can tell already that there are a whole lot more police officers down in the beginning few steps of the pay range than you find at LF&R, so I suspect that the W2 average would be lower for that reason alone.

The "rules" of comparability compare firefighter-paramedic to other firefighter-paramedics, not to police officers, so the public sector labor market out their in the comparable array would be the determining factor.


Never heard of such a vehicle. I intend to leave such things to the people who know what is needed, which is not me. I will, however, be the advocate when and if I am convinced that the need is significant, and serves the public interest.

Anonymous said...

I can identify with the problem of LFR handling heavier patients. I weigh over 300# and live on the second floor of an apartment accessible only by stairs. I feel sorry for any of your ambulance crews that would have to get me down the stairs in case of an emergency. As part of your fire rescue training may I suggest a segment from the 1970's movie MOTHER, JUGS and SPEED. One way to do it. Maybe not the way I would want.

Gun Nut

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for setting the record straight, Chief/Director. I don't know where some people get their info but I wish they would make sure they know what they're talking about before they spout off in a public forum.

Not to change the subject but I didn't see you last night at the recruit graduation. Will you not be attending those anymore? Wonderful new officers. It was awesome!

Anonymous said...

The fed govt is spending money faster than it can print it.
It is "Job Creation"
Jobs are the main support of the entire system. We are funding such great projects and the result is many jobs.
I agree, Govt services employee talent should not be of the beginner vintage, but like a fine wine, aged to perfection.. Tax payers really should have the very kind of city employee you point out today.
I am not sure it blends well with the presidents job creation plans though. He has it the other way around.
I know who you wont vote for now.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, the firefighters, police and 911 center employees deserve every penny they get. I think they are grossly underpaid for the risks they take.

God help us if Coby Mach ever becomes Mayor or Governor. He would personally see to it that everyone I listed above (and all other public sector employees) made $7.25 per hour, and he would do it with a smile on his face.

Anonymous said...

Law enforcement needs more leaders like you! Nicely done. BTW If you need any police records, UCR, technology training or consulting check us out at

Anonymous said...

Well, when you consider how many days a month they actually work. and of those days how many hours are spent actually doing work. (i.e. responding to a call, fighting a fire) they are paid very high. a large amount of time is paid sleep time. a neat study would be how many hours spent on actual calls per week, how many actually needed to respond and divide that by how many firemen were on pay status citywide at that time. My guess would be the average would show each guy actually performing the job function 20 hours or so in a week, but being paid for 40 hrs.

zinnias said...

Thank you for an informative post. I think you should submit this as an opinion piece to the LJS.

Anonymous said...


I had the chance to attend a very nice graduation with some exception duty awards given to some fine officers. I was disappointed not to read anything about this afterwards in the paper. Will you be releasing anything to give these officers some good publicity for a change? I would like to see something nice written about LPD.

Tom Casady said...


You can bet that Officer Katie Flood always pitches this story. That doesn't necessarily result in an article, though. Alas, there are fewer and fewer reporters these days.

Tom Casady said...


I absolutely will, but a very happy family event caused me to miss this one, knowing that it was in good hands with Chief Jim Peschong.

Tom Casady said...


What percentage of the time do you suppose a United States Marine spends in combat? I think we'll need to remember that the work of firefighters will primarily be about preparing to act, and we will all be better off of the action is rarely required, but performed with courage and excellence when duty calls.

Anonymous said...


Unlike an enlisted Marine, a police officer or firefighter will not face prosecution and possibly imprisonment for desertion if they just decide the job has just become (in their judgement) too dangerous to perform. They can just say "I quit" and walk away. It might earn them scorn, but it won't get them arrested.

I really don't think you can directly compare military service with those other two jobs, for that reason and many others, and I think that many of your officers who are military veterans might agree.

Tom Casady said...


I wasn't trying to make a direct comparison. I was thinking about other jobs where preparing and waiting consumes a lot of the time.

Anonymous said...

LFR get paid to workout, sleep and make grocery store runs in the company vehicle. do the police get that luxury? Sounds like they have it pretty nice already, they shouldn't be complaining about pay, or retirement.

Michael James for Lincoln Airport Authority said...

I will clarify how I calculated LFR compensation. I divided personnel costs by head count. LFR average is $23,163,429/301.25 = $76,891 with the EMS Transport division average, same math, personnel costs divided by head count. $2,868,280 / 28.49 = $100,677. I understand how depending on which side of the debate whether you would say personnel costs or compensation package or salary or W-2’s. Yes my numbers include benefits. Letters to the editor are limited by word count and I had to cut my letter by 30% to make the paper.

I also wanted to add I have no beef with any other group of city workers compensation, just LFR. I agree with your market based assessment of how pay should be determined.

My letter to the editor was my way of telling Lincoln, hey I do not like this about this city budget, I hope you (Lincoln) can see it like I do. LFR has had an image problem over the years. The perception being the fox (LFR union) is in charge of the hen house (City tax revenue). Seeing Dave Engler in the Paper today is not helping either. I am sure another reason Beutler asked you to move to PSD was to also help with the public image of LFR.

Tom Casady said...

Mr. James,

Looks like my assumption was correct, then, as to "total cost of ownership," and we are on the same page.