CAUTION: The following commentary will trigger intense feelings of hatred (of me) among some firefighters. My apologies in advance.
Firefighting has always been an honorable profession. It’s a job that, from time to time, definitely can be more dangerous than most occupations. But the “problem” for the California Fire Foundation (CFF) and other boosters of firefighters is that — these days — too few firefighters are dying on the job.
Now, MOST of us think fewer firefighter deaths is a good thing. I suspect most firefighters strongly agree. Better equipment, safer procedures, better exercise programs, less firefighter cigarette smoking and — MOST IMPORTANT — significantly fewer fires have all contributed to this drop in the firefighter mortality rate.
But the problem that trend presents is that — for those groups trying to justify high pay and benefits for firefighters — lower mortality experience doesn’t help the cause. So they have been getting — shall we say — “innovative.”
It appears that the approach now by the CFF is to claim that firefighter RETIREES who expire often “died in the line of duty.” Yes, LITERALLY in the line of duty. Here’s what the website says about their memorial wall:
The Memorial Wall
Note that two of the three firefighters died in 2004. Obviously CFF is desperately seeking to add many new names to the memorial, so they are looking back a decade or more to find retirees who might fit their loosely defined “fallen firefighter” category.
Of course, firefighters DO die in the line of duty. But apparently the last City of San Diego firefighter to actually die on the job was killed in 1978 — hit by a car while working at a car accident. While definitely tragic, it’s not a frequent occurrence.
BTW, to back-fill the memorial wall with deceased retirees is an insult to the firefighters who DID die in the line of duty. And their families. But honoring the true “fallen firefighters” is a secondary purpose of this wall. The primary purpose is to convince the press and the public that being a firefighter is far more dangerous than it is.
We know from CalPERS’ extensive data base that the average life expectancy of retired CalPERS firefighters is essentially the same as ALL CalPERS government employees. But within every aging group, some die earlier than others, just as others live LONGER than average.
CFF has decided to assume that many of such “early” deaths (especially the result of cancer and heart disease) are work-caused — making them “fallen firefighters.” This makes little sense, but it DOES serve to bulk up the public’s perception that firefighting is very dangerous work. It’s not — especially for retirees.
Make no mistake, being a firefighter is more risky than the average job. But there are literally millions of outdoor jobs that include a higher mortality risk than firefighting — a significantly higher risk. Moreover, my most recent look at this mortality experience of firefighters (and police) seems to indicate the public safety mortality risk is dropping.
The average nationwide mortality risk of all occupations is about 3.5 deaths per 100,000 workers. I found the U.S. firefighter risk among paid firefighters (NOT the volunteers) to be 11.1 deaths per 100,000 — significantly higher. But that’s about the same frequency of death as found for people in the “Athletes, Coaches and Umpires” category. If you want to learn more about the mortality rates of various occupations, go to my annotated article: