80% of Firemen Are Fat and Out of Shape, Except When It Comes to Compensation


This post has been updated with new compensation figures that are even more frustrating! Scroll down for new info.

You know the ideal of firemen as swoonsome, stoic hunks who keep us all safe from burning buildings, are gentle enough to rescue kittens from tall trees, and could easily step in to any of the male-stripper roles in Magic Mike 2.

Yeah, not so much. Via the Twitter feed of Omar Wasow comes this interesting New York Times reality check on the morphology of firemen:

Four out of five firefighters nationwide are overweight or obese, and roughly half of all firefighters who die in the line of duty each year are killed by heart attacks.

The Times caught up with Robert Piparo, a fire fighter in New Brunswick, New Jersey who heads up the nonprofit 555 Fitness, which designs full-body workouts that are inspired by Crossfit and other exercise programs.

Q. Why are so many firefighters out of shape?

A. People have this image of the firefighter running out of a burning building holding a baby in this super athletic state. But we're just your everyday Americans who have chosen to do a very dangerous job. And we fall into the same pitfalls as everyone else. We work crazy schedules and our sleep cycles are very interrupted.

I'm a father of two. My wife works full time. I could be up all night at a fire and my wife has to work the next day. So when I go home I'm Daddy Day Care, and I may not be going to the gym that day or having a good nutrition day. It's really hard for us to get into a routine of diet and exercise.

Full Times story.

Piparo further notes that when firemen do swing into action, it's typically under extreme conditions where you go from zero to 100 percent, thus increasing the risk of cardiac events.

That's all well and good and 555 Fitness posts its routines online for us civilians too.

It's worth pointing out that the often romanticized danger surrounding fire fighters is every bit as mythical as the idea that most of them sport six-pack abs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, neither fire fighters nor police officers are on the list of the deadliest professions in the U.S. That list is topped by loggers, commercial fishermen, aircraft pilots and flights engineers, roofers, and garbagemen. Nor are fire fighters in the top reaches of occupations with non-fatal injuries. More good news: The rate of injury among fire fighters is declining.

Yet it's the heightened sense of danger, risk, and sacrifice that is a major reason why public-sector fire fighters and police are able to extract relatively generous collective bargaining agreements with government negotiators and exemption from reforms of the same (recall that Gov. Scott Walker's showdown with Wisconsin public employees over benefits excluded police and fire fighters).

In California, for instance, fire fighters can retire with full benefits at age 57 (recently increased by a few years, incidentally) and the average retirement pension for a 30 year vet is over $86,000 police and fire fighters in the CalPERS system is $99,908. See below for more information and links.

One of the ways fire fighters negotiate better deals is by arguing that public safety workers have shortened lifespans—in effect, they are not simply sacrificing themselves on the job but by taking the job in the first place. Yet a 2010 study by CalPERS, which covers public-sector workers found that "the life expectancy of safety members is slightly higher than the life expectancy of miscellaneous members."

It's great that people such as Piparo are helping their coworkers get in shape to meet a stressful and demanding job—and it's great, too, that 555 is sharing the workouts with everyone. But the real contribution might be in helping to demystify the lives of a particularly venerated set of public-sector employees during an age of widespread budget tightening.

For more about fire fighters and new, more efficient ways to fund public safety, check out Reason Foundation's archive on the topic.

Update: Here are more accurate figures for CalPERS, courtesy of Robert Fellner, who runs the watchdog site Transparent California:

Hi Nick,

My name is Robert Fellner and I run the TransparentCalifornia.com website. We cover California's pension issues quite extensively.

In your article on firefighters today you link to an article we helped to write and stated that "the average retirement pension for a 30 year vet is over $86,000."

This is not true. That is the average pension for ALL members the Marin County Pension system ONLY.

The author of that article asked us for data on Marin County only. The average pension for full-career firefighters is much larger. Statewide, here are the relevant numbers:

CalPERS avg pension for full-career safety retiree (police/fire): $99,908 per year. http://californiapolicycenter.org/evaluating-public-safety-pensions-in-california/

For Orange County, for instance, avg pension for full-career firefighter is: $117,934 http://unionwatch.org/average-orange-county-pension-88-of-final-salary/#comments

For LA its $110k for both police and fire (I'm unable to break them out individually):http://transparentcalifornia.com/pensions/2013/los-angeles-fire-and-police-employees-pension/employers/

Also, many fire employees can retire as young as 50, not 57 as you wrote in your article. That new retirement age is for new hires as of Jan 1, 2013 and beyond. So for every firefighter who is currently working and was hired before 2013, they are almost all working under the 3% @ 50 plan.


Robert Fellner