Colorado may rank in the top 10 in country for average firefighter wages, according to a recent analysis, but local fire agencies across Boulder and Weld counties are questioning whether it is enough to keep up with population growth and the cost of living.
Using May 2018 Occupational Employment and Wages from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Frontpoint Security, a national security operation, analyzed the data in a recent report. The information shows the average salary for a Colorado firefighter is $61,160 — ranking Colorado as the seventh highest paying for firefighters in the nation. The lowest paying state is Louisiana, where firefighters earn an average $33,962 and the highest paying is California, where firefighters can make $71,063, according to Frontpoint’s report.
Some local fire stations have not been able to offer competitive wages, causing staffing shortages as the population along the Front Range has boomed.
In Weld County’s Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District, Chief Jeremy Young said firefighters make on average between $52,000 and $62,000 a year. The amount is not enough to keep prospective firefighters from getting a job at neighboring fire departments.
“We lose on average four to six people a year that go to other fire departments, because of their wages and benefits,” Young said.
Young hopes that proposed ballot item 6A will be enough to encourage more firefighters to servehis district. The initiative proposes raising the district’s existing property tax mill levy by an additional 2.54 mills. The current mill levy is 11.360. If passed, Young said the funds would help to hire 12 firefighters next year and allow the department to continue to hire on an additional three to four firefighters every year. The money will also be used to help purchase equipment and training.
With service calls to the Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District doubling in the past 10 years, an issue Young said is attributed to population growth, more staff is needed to keep up with demand. Better wages for firefighters won’t just benefit those who work for the department.
“It’s going to be a bigger benefit to the community,” Young said.
While Young said Colorado may rank in the top 10 for firefighter wages, the amount made should also be reflective on the cost to live in the area. Young said only about one third of his 42 firefighters live in the Frederick-Firestone district, because of the cost of living. He said some firefighters even commute from Wyoming, where the cost of living is cheaper.
“You have to look at housing costs and what is comparable to have people work in service industry,” Young said.
In Longmont, while wages for firefighters are more comparable with neighboring stations, there has still been a need for more staff.
In the past 10 years, call volumes to the Longmont Fire Department have increased by more than 80%, according to Jerrod Vanlandingham, the department’s chief of fire services. Despite the surge in demand, the department’s staffing has remained at 91 firefighters for a decade.
“It is directly related to population growth and density within the city,” Vanlandingham said. “I don’t know the growth we have had in the last 10 years or so but that is contributing to call volume increase.”
Fortunately for the Longmont Fire Department, voters approved a 0.255% sales and use tax, which will allow for the funding to hire new firefighters for the first time in a decade. Funds on the tax, which have been collected since 2018, have been earmarked to add more staff to the police station and other public safety jobs.
“It will be the first time we have increased the number of firefighters in the city since more than 10 years ago, which is when we opened fire station one in 2008,” Vanlandingham said. “It basically came down to public safety priorities. We are excited to be able to add those six firefighters to the streets.”
A first-year Longmont firefighter makes $59,111, according to data provided by Patrick Kramer, the department’s spokesperson. Each year, if firefighters meet certain requirements, they can move up the ranks and earn a bigger pay check. Tier-four firefighters, for example, make $84,444.
With six additional firefighters on staff, the plan is to create an “alpha car,” a vehicle staffed with first responders who will be tasked with responding to lower priority medical calls in an effort to free up other resources.
“What we are hoping is allowing the big fire engines to stay in the stations more often so that they are available for the more critical call types,” Vanlandingham said, “and allow this one Alpha car to run around the city responding to less emergency calls for service.”
With the alpha car in service, Vanlandingham expects responders to be able to pick up between 1,200 and 1,400 calls for service a year, allowing fire engines to be available more often, while subsequently saving on wear and tear of station apparatus. The emergency response team would also be able to help if ambulance services are busy on another call.
Southwest of Longmont, Boulder firefighters are also paid based on ranking. The highest paid firefighter makes about $87,000 and the lowest makes about $67,000.
Across the mountainous regions of Boulder County, a number of small, rural fire stations depend on volunteer labor to fight fires and respond to emergencies. Many of these stations have reported volunteer shortages and expressed concerns as call demands increase with the growing population and many people recreating in the county’s open space.
Some of these same stations have lobbied for the county to share a Payment in Lieu of Tax funds — a government reimbursement for counties with non-taxable federal lands.
For Longmont, Vanlandingham said the fire department has voters to thank for the ability to hire more firefighters. He said this support from the community will be paramount for future growth.
“The city of Longmont and the community really does support public safety,” he said. “It’s a big kudos to our community that we are able to continue to grow and keep with the pace.”