CA Fire Foundation counts deceased retirees as “fallen firefighters” — shame!

Richard Rider, Chairman, San Diego Tax Fighters Richard Rider, Chairman, San Diego Tax Fighters 4 Comments


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

   The centerpiece of the California Firefighters Memorial is the Memorial Wall. Our objective is to include the name of every firefighter who died in the line of duty in California since California became a state in 1850.
But in recent years — apparently due to the relative paucity of CA firefighter deaths — especially urban and suburban (union) firefighters — the names being added to the wall are mostly retirees who died from heart disease or cancer within 10 years after they retired — usually in their 60s or 70s.
It appears that the criteria is this:  If a firefighter dies from cancer or heart disease up to 10 years after retiring, they likely died in the line of duty — because presumably the ONLY way a firefighter could contract such geezer ailments is from fighting a fire.  The board of the fire foundation makes the final decision, and naturally they are prone to up the death total, in order to make the job of a firefighter seem a lot more dangerous than the facts indicate.
Our City of San Diego Fire Department has three of its deceased retirees being added to the wall this month.  All were career firefighters, and doubtlessly served courageously and with honor.  But none is a “fallen firefighter” who “died in the line of duty.”  Not hardly.
I couldn’t find much information on the three firefighters online, but the following excerpts are gleaned from a local TV news story on this trio being honored — which in turn is repeating what doubtless is presented in a CCF press release:Captain Normal R. Nelson, Captain Craig Nielsen and Engineer Oran Shadoan, all of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, will be honored Saturday. . . .

Nelson, a 27-year-old veteran of the department, died in 2014 after a battle with kidney and colon cancer.
Shadoan died in 2004 from complications due to job-related cancer. He worked for SDFD for more than 40 years.
Nielson died in 2004 after suffering a heart attack related to his job. He spent nearly three decades with the department.

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:

BTW, if we culled “forest fighters” out of the California firefighter category, the resulting “firehouse” firefighter death rate on the job would surely be even lower. People hired to fight forest/brush fires spend days and even weeks off in tinder-dry wilderness, actively fighting (and sometimes fleeing from) roaring fires that can move 20 MPH or faster on a windy day. Their risk factor (and general hardship factor) is probably several times that faced by urban firefighters (while their pay and benefits are far lower).  Urban firefighters on average spend about 3% of their shifts actually responding to and fighting fires. These days they are primarily medical units — valuable work, though seldom dangerous.
But I digress.  The bottom line is this:  Annually the firefighters (led by CFF) put on a big show about adding a bunch of names to their “fallen firefighter” Memorial Wall.  It’s a well-coordinated propaganda campaign, faithfully highlighted by press across the state.  Only a small fraction of the names added actually died in the line of duty.  The press should look more skeptically at this annual ceremony, but won’t.

Comments 4

  1. There has to be some outrage from families of firefighters who did truly die in the line of duty. Imagine the following conversation taking place at some memorial ceremony:

    “Hello, who are you here to honor?”
    “My husband’s name is being put on this wall. He burned to death trying to save 2 small children from a burning building. What about you?”
    “My husband also died in the line of duty and is being remembered. He died of colon cancer a couple years after retiring.”


  2. The Inyaha Monument near Julian is most impressive. 10 County inmates and two Probation Officers were all killed in the line of duty.

  3. I was surprised to find out they won’t allow inmate firefighters who died in the line of duty on the wall – they’ll honor volunteers though

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.