I wasn’t going to respond to Mr. DeVol’s comments on the law enforcement officers and firefighters (LEOFF) retirement benefits because I’m confident our history of service justifies them. But as John Calvin once said, “A dog barks when his master is attacked.”
My career was spent in another department, but I share the same retirement system. As Mr. DeVol stated, we do have good medical coverage. This is because of the hazardous and strenuous nature of our job. The average life expectancy of firefighters nationwide is five years after retirement. In Seattle, when I was in, it was age 58. Upon entry, firefighters are among the top 10 percent of the population’s fitness level and in the bottom 10 percent at retirement.
When I look back at all the guys I worked with who are dead now, it makes me sad. They won’t be collecting those benefits DeVol is so worried about.
I liken his analysis to some pencil-pusher in Washington, D.C., telling an Army Ranger battalion how to attack a Taliban stronghold. When firefighters are killed on the fireground, there is widespread news coverage, but they give a large portion of their lives and health and this goes unnoticed. I don’t know a single retired firefighter whose body has not been damaged by years of dong our job. Stress, related to dealing with trauma, is also hard on us.
Our ladders are much heavier than those at Home Depot. Try throwing up a 25-footer by yourself with 30 pounds of gear on. Then carry a 15-foot roof ladder up that (by the way, you now have a mask on to breathe), hook it over the apex of a steeply-pitched roof, then climb up on a dark, rainy or snowy night and chop a vent hole to let the hot gases out so the hose company below doesn’t take as severe a beating in the heat and smoke. Have you ever been in a fully-charged building and had to crawl because of the heat in zero-visibility while dragging a charged hose line? How about carrying bodies out of ravines on stretchers, down stairwells, out of cave-ins, water rescues, holds of ships? Try jumping off a tailboard with 85 pounds of hose on your shoulder. My head is still full of the aid runs and trauma. If the Courier-Herald would give me five more pages I’d tell you about some of them.
Firefighters wear protective equipment but you can’t help being contaminated by PCBs, asbestos, lead, solvents, gasoline, etc. Even the training sessions were hard on our bodies, but we had to be ready.
My service gave me knee surgery, double hernia surgery, three-level spinal fusion, two discs above that ruptured, one fusion at the sacrum broken, shoulder surgery, broken elbow, disintegrated disc in my neck, almost died of pneumonia due to toxic exposure, and cancer (six surgeries related to that). I ran into my old union president the other day. He’s had both knees and shoulders replaced. Gee, I can’t understand why we’re getting such good healthcare benefits.
Getting in the department is really hard. There’s a physical ability, written test and oral board. Thousands of applicants may contest for 20 jobs. Only those deemed most qualified are hired. Most are highly educated. Many are volunteers and EMT or paramedics. DeVol suggesting that because of the large amount of applicants, pay and benefits could be cut is a travesty. I wonder how that would affect the quality of workforce at Microsoft, Google or Facebook? That being said: if your primary motivation for getting in the department is monetary, you’ll probably be sent home in your oral board. Those who make it get their sense of purpose and identity be serving their communities, regardless of the cost.
The quality of men and women I served with never impressed me more than when I saw our numbers gathered at funerals for those fallen while protecting those they faithfully served.