February 15, 2011

Comparison: Firefighter Disability Pension Rates

Marc Comtois

Following up: So what are some of the firefighter disability rates across the country? Well, the Boston FD rate of 74% between 2005-07 is known around here. Similarly, New York City had a disability rate of 72% between 2004-2009 (62% rate in 2000, pre-9/11~and the NYPD was at 19%) while Chicago FD was at 25%. In San Jose, CA in 2009 it was reported that:

52 percent of former San Jose officers and 77 of firefighters were receiving disability pensions — rates that dwarfed those in nearby towns and other big California cities.
Those are the bad ones. I also found a report out of Springfield, Missouri that compared the combined Fire/Police disability rates of several communities. It's a little apples/oranges (except for Amarillo,TX), but interesting (and all I could find in limited time).

I suspect that most rates match the above list rather than the extreme examples given at the top (they were easily found because they were so high and caused a ruckus, after all). That being said, there is no doubt that injuries can build up over time and manifest later in career, thus making one eligible for disability pay (as Michael commented). As I replied to Michael, part of this is because a unionized pension system has a vehicle for disability retirement while the private sector 401K doesn't. Nonetheless, the 59% level in Providence still seems too high.

ADDENDUM: Also in the WPRI report was this:

As Tim [White] wrote back in 2008, “The stats for the Providence Fire Department are also affected by the early 1990s, when nearly eight out of 10 retiring firefighters were granted an accidental disability pension.” That was down to one in five by 2008.
In the comments, Michael supports this:
In 1991 when I started the disability pension system in my opinion was abused. 95% of firefighters retired with disabilities. Cianci was mayor, a lot of shenanigans were going on. Those people are still collecting pensions. Over the last ten or so years the system is much better, with disabilities being awarded only after three doctors that the city chooses agree that the firefighter can no longer do the job. I don't know what the percentage is, but my guess is around 15%. The 59% comes from years past. The 15% or so that get disability pensions earned them.
In addition to Michael, David S. also offers some firefighter perspective.

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Hmm, a 5% disability rate in Little Rock. Must not be that dangerous a job!

Posted by: Patrick at February 15, 2011 5:16 PM

It's only a little rock.

In 1991 when I started the disability pension system in my opinion was abused. 95% of firefighters retired with disabilities. Cianci was mayor, a lot of shenanigans were going on. Those people are still collecting pensions. Over the last ten or so years the system is much better, with disabilities being awarded only after three doctors that the city chooses agree that the firefighter can no longer do the job. I don't know what the percentage is, but my guess is around 15%. The 59% comes from years past. The 15% or so that get disability pensions earned them.

Posted by: michael at February 15, 2011 5:39 PM

There's a mechanism to independently evaluate someone before they go on lifetime pension, I hope. Also, at least bi-annual medical checks to make sure the person is still disabled would be wise.

It might even make sense to occasionally retain a private investigator to check folks out. I'll bet it would pay for itself.

Posted by: mangeek at February 15, 2011 5:49 PM

Michael, what are your union's suggestions for stopping the (now admitted) disability pension abuses of its current and former members? What have they done to document and prevent these cases from continuing or reoccurring under their watch? Do they take any responsibility for the "95%" of their members who (according to you) defrauded the system under their representation? Or is it all just "somebody else's" problem now?

Posted by: Dan at February 15, 2011 5:54 PM

When I went to work in Warwick in the 70's, report cards for first year firefighters were filed by your supervisor evaluating firefighting skills. The first year evaluation determined your continued employment. One of the skill sets in this report card had to do with 'ability to breath smoke'. Well, we were not breathing what other past firefighters had breathed- not the carpets, or the wall coverings, the plastic toys of the new American generation. How about the Salvadore Dali clock! Try breathing that. It is not the accumulated injuries, it is the accumulated exposure to chemical compounds that exist in a modern fire that no one, no scientist have ever tested.. There is no controlled environment to test what exposures for humans in modern day fire environments experience health wise. Industrial workers have minimum daily exposure rates and other factors that by law limit their exposure to dangerous chemicals.
Firefighting is a dirty job. We are your garbage workers for your high end lifestyles.

Posted by: David S at February 15, 2011 6:09 PM

David S, you are making an argument that nobody is debating. We are all fully aware that firefighting is a more hazardous than average profession. It is not in the top 10, or likely even the top 20 most dangerous common professions in America. But it is more dangerous than average, no doubt. The relevant question here is: does 59% disability sound like a reasonable number to you? Keeping in mind that most other cities have far lower disability rates for the same exact profession, can we at least acknowledge that there is probably *some* fraud occurring here? If so, I think you would agree that it is not acceptable, and the question becomes what to do about it. We are open to suggestions from you and the firefighter's union that represented all of these individuals during the conduct in question.

Posted by: Dan at February 15, 2011 7:02 PM

I'm not doing anything, Dan. Those 95% were awarded disability pensions. It is my opinion there may have been some "shenanagans" going on during the Cianci administration. My "opinion."

This is why I use this forum as entertainment only. People like you can't wait to trip somebody up and try to make them eat their words. I know it's just entertainment to you as well, but you will never get much out of this because of it.

Posted by: michael at February 15, 2011 7:40 PM

And Dan, what are you doing about the corrupt attorneys whe degrade your profession? Are you seeking to have them disbarred? Do you or do you not belong to a brotherhood of sorts, and adhere to the same code of ethics? And don't go all attorneys are respectable pillars of society blah blah blah on me, everybody knows that among your ranks criminals exist. There are more stories about corrupt lawyers being brought down than firefighter disability scammers.

Posted by: michael at February 15, 2011 7:52 PM

Ok, for entertainment's sake then, Michael - what do you suggest we do about these abusers who continue to defraud Rhode Island's pension fund year after year? Turn a blind eye to their yearly heist out of deference to "firefighter heroism"? Or is there something a bit more active we can all agree should be the next rational step going forward to stop the illegal and reprehensible behavior? Tell us your suggestion. We already know your union will have no comment, despite having represented every one of these crooks at the time of their "awards."

Posted by: Dan at February 15, 2011 7:59 PM

Dan, I think I can provide you with an answer. Dangerous? Sometimes. But the day to day health effects for urban, Northeast firefighters are more to the point. I don't know what they do in Lincoln, Nebraska, or Little Rock, Arkansas. I suspect they fight fires in the old volunteer tradition- surround and drown-- that is - let the building burn down- set up a perimeter and pour water on the poor unfortunate structure. Good old country solution- I will come and put "YOUR" fire out so it won't affect ME. True to your heart no doubt. I learned firefighting in the urban sense- your fire is my fire- it affects us all. So we actually tried to put fires out. Aggressive interior attacks on fires that would potentially save a life, save a building so a business could survive, save a home so a family could continue living in their home. That approach to firefighting is what I learned from my fellow firefighters and from the people I worked for. It is more expensive and it does put one at risk. Aggressive firefighting will injure and disable more firefighters.
Does the union bear some responsibility for disabilty fraud? I say yes, as in, we all do. Remember this- unions do not hire employees and are not in a legal position to evaluate employees, or fire them, or disipline them, or provide an employee with pension benefits. The decisions of hiring and firing and discipline and pensioning are made by city and town administrators. I know, I know, the easy answer is that these entities are under the sway of UNIONS. Have it your way. While I was a member of a union I wanted it to be a responsible actor in the public realm, and I believe we were.

Posted by: David S at February 15, 2011 8:09 PM

Our union does not represent people filing disability claims. The retirement board has complete control. And it is not stacked in the unions favor.

I wrote this on my blog the other day:

“Police and firefighter jobs are not even it the top ten for dangerous occupations!” – some asshat on the linked video


I have no intention of dying on the job. I don’t expect to suffer a disabling injury. I don’t even think I’ll be inconvenienced by minor injuries. I’m certainly not heroic, nor do I do heroic things. Simply put, I have the aptitude and physical ability to do a difficult job, and the desire to do it.

I don’t want my pay and benefits judged by some “danger scale.” What I do is dangerous, but a lot of people do dangerous things. I am compensated for my knowledge, and ability to perform under stressful situations, and come out in one piece, emotionally and physically. There is a reason that of the thousands that apply for police and firefighter positions, and only a small percentage make it. Applicants go through rigorous physical and psychological testing before consideration for employment.

It doesn’t make us better people, or stronger, or smarter, or more reckless. It just makes us better suited for the requirements of the job. Add to that the fact that a lot of us get killed in the line of duty due to circumstances beyond our control and you start to get the picture. It happens, but we do everything in our power to try and make sure it doesn’t.

Stay safe. And don’t let people insult you with their pandering, self-serving rhetoric concerning our professions. They don’t have a clue.


* I wrote this yesterday after watching the video. I may have understated the inherent danger of the job. It is definitely a dangerous job, I just find it condescending when people assume I’m willing to die for it. If that happens so be it, but I’m certainly not looking for it.

Posted by: mmorsepfd@aol.com at February 15, 2011 8:24 PM

Well first of all, Michael, we have a Bar Association that polices attorneys in addition to all of the laws governing us and it frequently disbars or fines offenders. Some of the the ethical rules border on absurdly overprotective, but I support this function overall.

If you haven't heard my gripes about the legal profession collectively, then you haven't been listening. I think there are major problems with attorney culture, particularly when it comes to big firm over-billing and overzealous prosecutors who wrongfully believe their role is to be an equal counterpart to defense attorneys. Their willing involvement in the drug war is despicable. I am very outspoken about these issues. I have commented on every recent story involving corrupt attorneys, including the scumbag teacher's union attorney who was recently arrested. I have stated multiple times on this blog that there are too many lawyers and no less than 1/4 of the current law schools should be shut down.

I don't need to build up my profession into some saintly pursuit to feel good about myself. I do it because I enjoy it and I'm good at it. How's that for responsibility?

Posted by: Dan at February 15, 2011 8:52 PM

Pretty good actually. Kudos. But you're still way off when it comes to firefighters and their alleged disability scams. If they exist they are not approved by, condoned by the union, the members or any firefighters, past and present.

Posted by: michael at February 16, 2011 11:58 AM

I didn't say that they approved of or condoned these fraudsters. I said that they turned and continue to turn a blind eye to it. If anyone tries to reduce firefighter pensions they go to war, but when one of their dues paying members rips off the pension fund year after year they have nothing to say about it even though they know who these people are and exactly what is going on. Complete hypocrisy and social irresponsiblity.

Posted by: Dan at February 16, 2011 1:22 PM

Many are missing the point.

The current level of disability pensions for the PFD are reported to be 59%.

In the early 90's this percentage was more like 95%. --- and no, Dan, this 95% of retirees did not defraud the system! Common sense will tell you that "some" did. What %? Who knows.

The disability percentage currently runs closer to 15%. The 59% is an average of the earlier (so-called abusive years) and the later years in which many deserving firefighters were turned down for disability pensions.

Also, there is a mechanism for the pension board to test the disability status of retirees annually. The main reason it doesn't happen is the cost factor for the doctors.

I'd be in favor of regular evaluations. I'd be in favor of stripping the disability coverage in a retiree's pension if his circumstances have changed or if it could be proven that he didn't deserve it from the beginning.

Also...when comparing one city/town to another you have to be fair. You can't compare an urban department with many structure fires to rural departments with a much lesser fire load. For instance, do you think it would be fair to compare Providence firefighters to Exeter firefighters (as an example)?

If any of you want to complain that around 15% disability percentage for Providence firefighters is excessive then we have a real problem in attempting to discuss this matter because your expectations are based in a lack of knowledge of the facts. In my opinion.

Posted by: Tom Kenney at February 17, 2011 4:17 PM

Any last words Dan? Come on, you know you need to.

Posted by: michael at February 17, 2011 8:54 PM

Florid corruption. Trouble is, FD brass, city management, judges and lawmakers are all on the same corrupt scam. Nobody watching the henhouse. And a zinger nobody notes, this 'disability' cash is TAXFREE1.

Posted by: RANII at October 7, 2011 6:28 AM
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