Don’t play with fire

Patrick Gibbons

This weekend, a commentary by Geoffrey Lawrence, a fiscal policy analyst at NPRI, appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, criticizing the ridiculously over-the-top pay of Clark County firemen. Fortunately for the firemen, their PR department has done a good job of convincing many people that they, like teachers and police officers, are sacrosanct entities and beyond human criticism.

Mock their pay and you get burned.

Geoffrey's column received more than 70 online comments (as of the time this blog post was written). Beyond the name calling, most people complained that Geoffrey didn't know the facts, that he didn't care about people's lives, or that he somehow didn't realize that firefighters do dangerous work that requires high pay. 

If one were to consider the comments on the Review Journal's message board, one might seriously think there was a special place in hell for those who attacked the salaries of county government's most sanctified jobs. Nevertheless, most of the counterpoints made were either wrong or completely irrational.

First, firefighters aren't doing the most dangerous job. At the top of that list is the job of deep-sea fisherman in the North Atlantic, which sees 112 deaths per 100,000 workers per year – 30 times higher than the national average. Next come loggers, with 87 deaths per 100,000.

Garbage men are generally well paid, though not as well paid as those who work at the Las Vegas Fire Department, and they average 23 deaths per 100,000. The average employee at Waste Management (the private company that just won the contract to do business with Las Vegas) makes between $40,000 and $60,000 per year.

Even though the job for the men in blue got more dangerous in recent years, they averaged only 21 deaths per 100,000. By the way, Las Vegas starts its police recruits at a salary of more than $50,000 per year, which isn't bad. Still, two-thirds of the police force aren't making six figures.

Firefighters don't even crack the top 10 in terms of danger.

Neither do soldiers in the U.S. military, actually, who are considerably underpaid in comparison to Las Vegas firefighters.  A brand-new U.S. military recruit makes so little money that he would qualify for welfare. A Sergeant in the U.S. Army (E-5) with 10 years' experience makes $32,000 per year in salary.  Brand-new officers, who have the job of leading a platoon of 50 men, have a starting salary of only $28,000. Yes, benefits are generous, but nowhere near as generous as those of Las Vegas firefighters.

Want to make more than $100,000 (as 68 percent of Las Vegas firefighters do) in the U.S. military? You better be a Colonel with 20 years' experience. By the way, a Colonel in the U.S. Army can command a regiment, which includes upwards of 5,000 soldiers.  

Do we really have to pay that much for firefighters? The prevalence of more-than-adequate volunteer fire departments suggests we don't. "Volunteer," for those without a dictionary, means that those guys work for free.

Las Vegas could also consider privatizing its fire department, like it has privatized trash collection (although, we hope, with a more competitive bidding process). Unfortunately, we also have to mention that Rural/Metro of Scottsdale, Ariz. (the privatized fire department mentioned in the linked article above) has since been replaced by a government-run – and thus overpriced and unionized – outfit. Since that change, neither service nor safety has significantly improved, but costs have increased.

Rural/Metro was forced into competitive bidding year after year against unionized firefighters. Eventually, the company gave up after years of continual assaults by the union. Once the union took over, its promises of low prices swiftly disappeared – as did the process of competitive bidding for the job.

The reason why two-thirds of Las Vegas firefighters make more than $100,000 a year is because we have an uncompetitive and horribly inefficient government-run fire department. There is no reason we cannot have the same job accomplished by volunteers or by companies competitively bidding to complete the work necessary to save homes and lives.

The more money we save, the more money taxpayers have to provide food, clothing or shelter for their families, the more companies have to invest in creating jobs, and the less likely the government is going to be to come back to us taxpayers and demand we pay more the next time it manages our economy right into a giant hole.