In recent years, most states have changed their workers’ compensation rules for firefighters. When one of them develops cancer, heart disease or lung disease, the illness is now assumed to be job-related. These changes reflect the hazards of fighting fires. They also reflect the enormous clout enjoyed by firefighters and their unions.
The heroic image of firefighters is well earned, but it’s a political asset as well. No politician wants to be seen as opposed to them, or to the public safety values that they embody. “When you think of firefighters in the political sphere, they’re kind of a protected class,” says Robert Fellner of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a free market think tank. “Everyone wants firefighters on their side.”
Firefighters don’t simply rely on their image. They work the entire political system. The International Association of Fire Fighters raised $4.5 million for the 2016 federal election cycle. But their greatest impact is at the state and local levels. In Arizona alone, there are more than 30 political action committees representing the interests of firefighters. Last year, they spent seven times as much on campaigns as Arizona police did.
But firefighters bring more than money to the table. They are in practically every legislative district in the land. And because their work is done in shifts, there’s always someone off-duty who’s available to go around and knock on doors.
Occasionally, firefighters do get pushback from taxpayer groups such as Fellner’s, which argue that salary and benefit levels have gotten out of hand. The majority of calls that fire stations answer are for medical emergencies, not fires, yet the median salary nationally for firefighters is 50 percent higher than that earned by emergency medical technicians. Fellner complains that due to their sway in local elections, firefighters are effectively able to hire their own bosses.
That may be overstating things, but all candidates want the endorsement of the firefighters union if they can get it. “Just about every year, a legislature that’s dominated by people who say they are not supportive of labor unions continually does what the firefighter unions ask,” says Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.
Nevertheless, Strobeck gives credit to Bryan Jeffries, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, for helping to negotiate a reduction in pension benefits last year. Jeffries agreed to a change in the formula for cost-of-living adjustments for retirees, as well as increased contributions from new hires. Those alterations are expected to save the state $1.5 billion over 30 years. Maybe Jeffries was willing to come to the table because he had served on the Phoenix City Council and was able to see the issue from both sides. Or maybe he recognized that the pension system as a whole was at risk and threatened to “kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” Strobeck says.
Regardless of his motives, Jeffries’ willingness to compromise was essential, says state Sen. Debbie Lesko, who sponsored the package. “Quite honestly, I knew if I didn’t have the support of the firefighters, it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to pass the bill,” she says. “Everybody likes firefighters. They’re very organized. They’re very politically organized.”