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Why firefighters are underworked and overpaid

It's good to be a firefighter, especially if you live in a small town. You're one of the best-paid guys around. You get lots and lots of time off to go fishing or hunting or run your own business on the side. And your union always gets its way.

There's just one problem. The people you work for can't afford you anymore.

"We're spending 25 per cent of our operating budget on firefighters," Ted Luciani, the mayor of Thorold, Ont., told me the other day. "It's not sustainable. We've hit the wall."

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Thorold is a middle-class town of 18,500 in southwestern Ontario. It has 15 significant structure-related fires a year, the mayor's office says. But although its 18 firefighters don't have much to do, they make big-city money. An arbitrator recently awarded them a retroactive 9.2 per cent raise that bumped their pay to $92,119. Similar settlements have been awarded throughout the province. Most of the people who make these towns' Sunshine List (because their compensation is over $100,000) are cops and firefighters.

Firefighting is increasingly a lucrative part-time job. Starting next year, Thorold's firefighters will switch to 24-hour shifts, which means they'll work approximately seven shifts every 28 days. The advantages of this arrangement are obvious. Mayor Luciani is not happy about this change. He figures that overtime and sick-pay costs will increase. Besides, he fumes, "We'll be paying them to sleep on the job."

Municipalities that resist the union's demands can go to arbitration. But they virtually never win. Arbitrators simply hand the union whatever the last guys got. "When the municipalities lose 100 to zero, there's something wrong," the mayor argues. "The arbitration system has to change."

Thanks to better building materials and stiffer fire safety regulations, the number of fires across Canada has plunged. In big cities, only a small number of the calls to the fire service are for actual fires. (In Toronto, only 9.9 per cent of calls to the fire service in 2013 were about fires; in Calgary it was just 3.4 per cent.) But the number of firefighters just keeps going up. Thorold and other municipalities aren't able to cut staffing levels because of manning clauses in the contracts.

A new report by the Fraser Institute says the number of fires in Ontario fell by 41 per cent between 1997 and 2012, while the number of firefighters increased by 36 per cent. Although precise statistics aren't available for all of Canada, the national trends are the same. On top of that, firefighter compensation has risen faster than inflation, according to the report.

The firefighters' union does not want to acknowledge any of this. Its strategy is to try to discredit and intimidate its critics, while reminding us that firefighters risk their lives on our behalf. They like to warn that any effort to challenge its demands will put the public at risk of frying in their beds. They insist that firefighters do extremely valuable work when they're not fighting fires, such as training, prevention, public education, inspections, and pre-fire planning, to say nothing of sending their big red trucks screaming through the streets to rescue people in car accidents.

I have respect for firefighters. They're brave people and they do their jobs well, so far as I know. But their union is far too powerful for the public good. The arbitration system is broken, too. Although arbitrators are supposed to consider a town's ability to pay, in fact they don't. As a result, firefighters and cops are eating up a bigger and bigger piece of municipal budgets, and leaving less and less money for parks and libraries and everything else.

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The firefighters' sense of entitlement is rapidly exhausting the goodwill of the public, who are increasingly fed up at their high salaries and cushy working conditions. "Yes, they save lives," Mayor Luciani says. "But nurses save lives too. And look how hard they work. When nurses go on shift they're working every minute. They save lives every day."

Thorold's wrangle with the firefighters is over for now, but not for long. This dispute take years to settle. They'll be back to the bargaining table in January.\

Clarification: The original newspaper version and an earlier online version of this column estimated there were maybe 10 to 15 fires a year in Thorold, Ont. The mayor's office now confirms that there were 15 significant structure-related calls resulting in $960,000 of fire loss in 2014. This online version has been updated.

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About the Author

Margaret Wente is one of Canada's leading columnists. As a writer for The Globe and Mail, she provokes heated debate with her views on health care, education, and social issues. She is a winner of the National Newspaper Award for column-writing.Ms. Wente has had a diverse career in Canadian journalism as both a writer and an editor. More

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