Better pension plan retains safety workers

Tue, 08/14/2007 - 3:54pm
By: Letters to the ...

I have a loving family, faith in God, pride in my military record, love for my friends and community, and an eventful career as a Fayette County firefighter. I am a very content man and content men generally don’t write a lot of letters to the newspaper. I have never written to the paper before, but I feel compelled to comment on a recent front-page story.

On Aug. 8, 2007, The Citizen ran an opinion piece from some former county officials to condemn the idea of an improved retirement program for the county’s firefighters, law enforcement officers, and other employees. This piece bothers me in several different ways.

This piece is written by past political leaders against a proposition that isn’t even a proposition yet. I don’t know a single person who can tell me what this retirement improvement program might look like. The only action taken thus far is the meeting of a cross-section of people to look at the various opportunities that might be available to improve employee benefits.

It is true that a defined benefit program is one such option, but the editorial outcry against its cost and impact on taxpayers is unwarranted and premature.

The article implies that funding for firefighter retirements will be drawn from existing capital improvement and emergency preparedness accounts. I have heard no mention of any proposal like this outside of this article.

As a matter of fact, another local county that currently enjoys the experience and skills of past Fayette County firefighters funded a retirement program from the employees’ own existing retirement funds.

I find it difficult to understand why past and present community leaders would take such a fierce and intractable stance against improvements in employee benefits and the county’s ability to attract and retain quality personnel. This is especially true when applied to the retention of public safety employees.

I have a great deal of respect for the work and dedication that these political leaders have shown to the people of Fayette County, but I wonder if their current position on this issue is based on the best available information.

For example, the retention of fire department employees has been a problem for the 21 years that I have served this county. When a fire truck pulls up in front of your burning home today, do you know that most of the men on that truck will have never been inside an actual burning building before?

The majority of our firefighters have fewer than five years of service with the county. When we hire new employees, it takes more than a year and great cost to train them in firefighting and emergency medical response to be able to function on the emergency scene.

Once they have completed their training, they are intellectually prepared to fight fire, but the true firefighter is born from experience and flame, not from workbooks and testing. I have watched hundreds of fine firefighters train with Fayette County and then leave for other nearby departments to improve their family’s benefits, income, and future.

We train our firefighters to the highest possible standards. They are skilled in fighting fires, managing medical emergencies, mitigating natural disasters, performing rescue operations, responding to hazardous material emergencies, and extricating and caring for accident victims. These skills are not easily or cheaply acquired, yet over 50 percent of our employees have served less than five years.

As Homeland Security requirements pile more responsibilities on these men and women each year, we must find some way to keep them here in Fayette County. It is my opinion that the enormous turn-over in quality people is the number one danger to our ability to handle future emergencies.

The current Fayette County Board of Commissioners has addressed this issue and has made the county employee a priority in a way that I have not seen in the past.

Fayette County has always been where I want to live, work, and raise my family, but so many other great firefighters have decided that other communities were better for them. Fayette County is surrounded by fire departments with benefit and retirement plans that are vastly superior to ours.

From a personal perspective, I have participated in the county’s current retirement plan at a level greater that the average employee and beyond the county’s matching benefit for my entire employment and I have managed to accumulate less than two year’s salary due to the poor performance of the designated 401 and 457 plans available to us.

Our current system is obviously inadequate as demonstrated by the migration of firefighters from our department.

I only want the citizens to understand that the ideas under investigation aren’t a matter of greedy employees trying to enrich themselves at the expense of taxpayers. In whatever form they may take, these improvements are long overdue.

The potential costs of an improved benefits and retention package must be weighed against the necessity of a stable public safety workforce and the best interests of all citizens.

Doug Morris

medicaltraining (at)

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Submitted by lawaboveall on Wed, 08/15/2007 - 9:32am.

I appreciate your service to this county for all these years. However, you have made some statements here that are not necessarily supported by reality.

First of all, your assertion that the firefighters that come to a fire in this county have never been in a burning building is silly.
You and I both know that the training that they receive requires them to experience working in a burning structure. I think this statement tries to scare the uninformed and does nothing to further your efforts here. Stop trying to scare people into supporting this plan.

You are correct that the group was formed to study the pension plan, but let's again, be honest. If there was not an assumption that things were going to change (and you know that is what Jack Krakeel has wanted for years) why put together a group to study it. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

There are two reasons why firefighters (and other public safety workers) leave the county. First, there is not enough "action" around here for many of these young people who pursue this line of work for precisely that reason. Secondly, the fire and sheriff's departments are so top heavy with senior people, there is no place for a young person to go in the organization. To get a promotion they have to leave.

If you have not been able to save enough money for retirement, that is unfortunate. If it is because of the fund choices within the plans, then change the plans. If someone in the private sector does not save enough money through thier 401k then they are in the same situation that you are in, and they do not have tax dollars available to bail them out.

You chose to work here for 21 years for many good reasons. But the fact that you do not have enough money to retire is not a problem that should be rectified by the use of tax dollars.

Submitted by Eric J Williams on Sat, 08/18/2007 - 8:44am.

Doug Morris wrote a letter that is both true and nothing but reality. His statements about firefighters never having been in a burning building is 100% accurate. It is your statements that are "silly", to use your verbage, and very ill informed.

If you had an sense of reality you would realize that the training a recruit gets does include time in a Burn Building. This building is just that. A building designed to burn in and the fire conditions are controlled and predictable. The structure is not burning at any time. Only the materials used to create the fire are burning. There is no risk of collapse, wholes in floors, or other dangers the firefighters face in real structure fires. Even after a few times in the building the newest recruite memorizes the layout of the building.
This is not the same as a structure fire. The training gives the firefighter an introduction to fire behavior and introduces them to the heat and other products of combustion that are delt with. The training is far from the reality of what is encountered when you arrive on a structure fire.

I feel that everyone should know the reality of what we do and not the perceived reality from someone that has no first hand knowledge. Also, how do you presume to know why anyone leaves the employment of Fayette County. Every individual has their owm reasons and it is unrealistic for you to think you know them all.

Maybe, just maybe, you and others should stand firm in your convictions and not hide behind a screen name. Doug spoke his mind and didn't hesitate to attach his name to his thoughts. Will you do the same?

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