Editorial: Firefighters worth more

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 22, 2008

While the city of Salisbury continues to assess damage from the March 7 Salisbury Millwork fire, City Council should also investigate the salaries city firefighters receive. Salisbury is not competitive.
Every city has different classifications and pay scales, but here are comparisons with two nearby cities of similar size that could easily lure Salisbury firefighters away, Statesville and Kannapolis.
The salary range for a Salisbury fire control specialist I, a beginning firefighter, is $24,632 to $34,660. The city has a second level that goes up to $40,123. These are strictly firefighters รณ not fire engineers, inspectors or some other classification, and there are several of them.
Statesville’s pay for firefighters is higher than Salisbury’s, ranging from $28,506 to $47,034.
And the pay is higher still in Kannapolis, with a range of $31,089 to $48,229.
To put that in perspective, the mean annual salary for firefighters in North Carolina was $32,880 in 2006, and nationally it was $44,130, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Back to our cities. The pay range for fire captains shows a similar trend: Salisbury, $34,963 to $51,656; Statesville, $38,200 to $63,031; Kannapolis, $43,741 to $67,862. Not too surprising.
Nationally, fire captains averaged $51,808 to $62,785 in 2006, the bureau reports.
Granted, Kannapolis has more than 39,000 people, compared to Salisbury’s 27,500. But the cities cover similar areas in square miles: 15.7 in Kannapolis, 16.4 in Salisbury. Statesville may be more comparable, with 24,875 people and 12.9 square miles.
City Manager David Treme acknowledges that firefighter pay is lower in Salisbury than in surrounding cities. “We are definitely below them,” he says. One of the city’s goals for this year is to do a market study and look at all city wages, not just firefighters, he says. Salisbury may be low in many lines of work. For example, police officers’ salaries start at $29,042 in Salisbury and $34,273 in Kannapolis. (The city’s pay rates can be found on www.salisburync.gov, under Human Resources.) The list could go on and on.
People don’t go into firefighting with dreams of high wages and easy chores. “For this sort of a job,” one career Web site says, “you would do well to carry qualities such as mental alertness, courage, mechanical aptitude, endurance, strength and a sense of public service.” If Salisbury wants to recruit and keep firefighters who rate high in all those qualities, it has to pay more. The city has been operating with a tight budget for several years, and people don’t like tax increases. But the budget should not be balanced at the expense of hard-working professionals who are loyal to their chiefs and supervisors.
The millwork fire killed Justin Monroe and Victor Isler, two highly admired city firefighters. Better recognition and pay for the coworkers they leave behind is one good thing that can come out of this tragedy.

Here are salaries from two more nearby cities, which also are above Salisbury:
– Mooresville (population 20,488; area, 5.9 square miles): firefighter, $29,954 to $46,846; fire captain, $42,148 to $65, 917; police officer, $34,675 to $54,230.
– Concord (population 61,092; area, 21.8 square miles): Firefighter I is $29,201 to $51,394. Firefighter II is $30,970 $54,508. Fire captain, $38,735 to $68,173. Police officer, $30,970 to $54,508.
(Population figures are U.S. Census estimates for July 1, 2005. Salary figures were collected from each city’s government.)