by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

I work for a law enforcement agency.  I want to add to your previous reader’s statement “This isn't comparing apples and oranges as much as it is comparing apples and filet mignon” but not just because of the cost of pensions.  Compensation numbers include regular benefits not unlike those associated with any other job – for example employer cost of health insurance, worker’s comp, and employer matching 401K.  If that $47,000 figure reflects only average wages and we assume that at least most of the wages that were averaged were from full time jobs with benefits, adding in the cost of those benefits that number would be higher.   
Also not included is the fact that if you average police or fire compensation in a given department, you’re not talking about what the front line officer or fire fighter earns, you’re talking about an average that includes all the higher ranks and their commensurately higher salaries.  So depending on how ‘top heavy’ the command structure that could significantly skew that average compensation number.  

I also take issue with the reader who mentioned the 500 applicants for every one firefighter position “20 years ago”.  First of all, the number of applicants per position naturally fluctuates with the local economy and unemployment rates.  Low unemployment means fewer applicants.  In our area, there are multiple agencies that must compete to fill their academies when jobs are plentiful, and pay has to be competitive.  Second, out of a pool of applicants, only a small percentage are going to qualify.  To be a police officer (at least in our department), a candidate must pass extensive background checks, a tough interview board, a polygraph, and psychological evaluations, plus attend 6 months of intensive training and pass a licensing exam before we give her/him a gun and authority to use it, and a full time job with benefits. There are similarly stringent requirements for firefighters.  I think that’s quite a bit more than most non police/firefighter jobs require.

Another reader:

My significant other is a NYC fireman.  He barely makes enough to live in a lower middle class neighborhood in Brooklyn.  Every month is a financial struggle.  He could not support a family on his salary.  Many of his colleagues live in far-flung suburbs -- not because they choose to, but because they cannot afford to live in the city they protect.  They risk their lives on a daily basis to protect every citizen of this city -- rich and poor alike -- and they don't deserve their hard-won pensions?  Most of them cannot physically work after their 40s.  It is a tough demanding physical job.  This is one place our tax dollars should, and must, be spent.  Especially in cities like New York and DC where our firefighters are really on the front lines -- they are trained to deal with chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks.  Of course we want 500 applicants for every job!  Of course we want the best of the best!  I can't believe this is a serious debate in today's world.

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