Photo by Andrea Bolt
Plan proposed by firefighters lowers retirement age to 55
The Woodlands Fire Department is hoping to buck a nationwide trend that shows an increasing number of firefighters working into their older ages. Although The Woodlands Fire Department employs a younger staff relative to national comparisons, there is concern that the structure of The Woodlands Townships’ employee benefit program may keep firefighters on staff longer than recommended.
The result of an aging fire department could mean an increase in work time injuries, more overtime being paid by the township and more worker’s compensation being paid to employees, said Doug Adams, president of The Woodlands Professional Firefighter Association, the organization that represents the 122 members of The Woodlands Fire Department.
The township benefit program does not provide for firefighter retirement pensions, which Adams said results in a firefighter retirement age of 62. Other departments’ retirement programs allow firefighters to retire at about the age of 55. Adams has recommended that The Woodlands Fire Department enroll in the Texas Local Firefighters Retirement Act (TLFFRA). There are 41 Texas fire departments covered under TLFFRA, including the Conroe Fire Department and the Lake Conroe Fire Department.
“We’ve got a concern about our retirement age, actually being able to work until we are 62,” Adams said.
Of the 129 members of The Woodlands Fire Department, 32 are 40 years old or older, while four are 60 or older. Adams said within 10 years, one-third of the department could be over 50 years old.
“We’ve got some older employees that are out on an apparatus who have had recent surgeries,” Adams said. “Then again, we’ve got some young guys out as well. We’re afraid at some point it could affect public safety. When we talk about a third of our personnel, that’s one shift that could potentially be over 50 and into their 60s riding fire trucks.”
According to data compiled by the National Fire Protection Association, of the 1,103,300 career firefighters in the U.S. in 2010, 535,900, or 48.6 percent, were age 40 or over, up from 44 percent in 2000.
Ken Willette, division manager of the public fire protection division at the NFPA, said one of the reasons for the increase in aging firefighters is an increase in layoffs of younger firefighters because of financial cuts cities are facing, as well as the economic recession.
“I don’t want to call it a perfect storm, but you have several major factors coming together,” he said. “There are several factors limiting the number of younger firefighters and older firefighters staying longer and being put into more demanding roles.”
Willette said as firefighters age, they often transition to roles such as drivers, rather than being on the front lines.
“[Older firefighters] aren’t considered to be the crew going into the door with a hoseline right off the bat,” he said.
Bruce Tough, chairman of the township’s board of directors, said older firefighters with The Woodlands Fire Department often make the move to less strenuous roles such as drivers and management roles.
“There are times when firefighters are called upon to perform physical, mental and skill-level tasks when those peak performance years are younger employees,” he said. “As your employees age, the ability to perform those tasks become more difficult.”
Adams said all firefighters, regardless of age, must be able to perform all job-required duties.
“You have to be able to do everything, no matter your age,” he said.
With the goal of implementing a retirement program to lower the retirement age of firefighters to 55, Adams has recommended the township approve a pension plan. Under the current plan, the township offers a 2-to-1 match up to 14 percent on employees’ contributions to a retirement plan, meaning that if an employee contributes $100 to a retirement plan, the township contributes $200.
Under Adams’ proposal, the township and firefighters would contribute to a pension plan under a 1-to-1 match with a 10-year vesting schedule. For example, if a firefighter were to contribute $100 per month to a retirement plan, the township would also contribute $100 and the employee would not be fully vested until after 10 years of employment with the department. Adams said firefighters would increase their contribution from the current 7 percent to 12 percent under a pension plan.
“We’re not asking for anything additional from the township, we’re just asking them to change the vehicle in which those contributions are placed,” he said.
The township is in the midst of preparing its operating budget for fiscal year 2013, which will be adopted in September. Part of the budget preparation process is adopting benefits and retirement plans for township employees. Tough said although the township board is receptive to the proposal, similar plans have not worked favorably for other governmental entities.
“If you move to a defined pension plan, you’re using a model that other communities and cities are using that are not working now,” he said.
Tough said similar pension models call for contributions to be held in a trust, and employees receive a lump sum benefit at the time of their retirement. Under those models, Tough said cities often make a commitment to a financial contribution several years into the future that they cannot fund.
“The board would be receptive to any and all proposals as long as [the board] is comfortable with a plan that is financially feasible and as long as [the plan] doesn’t do what other cities have done,” he said. “They’ve gone down the path of assumptions and have had disastrous effects.”
He said such plans often penalize younger workers, and cities have struggled to fund their financial commitments.
Willette said, regardless of the plan, firefighter managers should understand their workforce and provide as safe a work environment as possible. Anything that leads to a more dangerous work environment is worrisome, he said.
“When a physician is conducting an evaluation to determine if a firefighter is healthy, [they ask] ‘Can you climb a ladder and advance to the third floor with a hose if you have a heart disease?’” he said. “That answer is no.”
Essential Job Tasks of a Firefighter
Doug Adams, president of The Woodlands Professional Firefighters Association, said members of The Woodlands Fire Department undergo annual physical checkups to ensure they are able to complete the job requirements of a firefighter. In addition, firefighters are tested and trained each month on the various tasks required of their job. Those requirements are defined by the National Fire Protection Association.
- Performing tasks and rescue operations under stressful conditions while wearing personal protective ensembles and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), including working in extremely hot or cold environments for prolonged time periods.
- Climbing six or more flights of stairs while wearing personal protective ensemble weighing at least 50 pounds or more and carrying equipment/tools weighing an additional 20 to 40 pounds.
- Wearing fire protective ensemble that is encapsulating and insulated, which will result in significant fluid loss that could progresses to clinical dehydration and can elevate core temperature to levels exceeding 102.2 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Searching, finding and carrying victims from newborns up to adults weighing over 200 pounds to safety despite hazardous conditions and low visibility.
- Carrying hose lines up to 2-1/2 inches in diameter from fire trucks to occupancy approximately 150 feet, which can involve negotiating multiple flights of stairs, ladders and other obstacles.
- Unpredictable emergency requirements for prolonged periods of extreme physical exertion without benefit of warm-up, scheduled rest periods, meals, access to medication or hydration.
- Time-sensitive, complex problem solving during physical exertion in stressful, hazardous environments, including hot, dark, tightly enclosed spaces, that is further aggravated by fatigue, flashing lights, sirens and other distractions.
Source: National Fire Protection Association