Friday, February 25, 2011

Police and fire not among the most hazardous professions?

Last October, I ran a serious post, Solve the budget crisis: End (most) public pensions. Like most of my serious posts, it landed with a dull and largely unheard thud in the Greater Blogosphere. To summarize, I suggested that (a) current public pensions be honored for people who have already earned them and (b) public pension contributions be stopped immediately for everyone else except police officers and fire fighters.

The private sector largely did away with pensions a generation ago. My wife, a Catholic school teacher, was one of the last people in the private sector that I knew with a pension -- but it was terminated three or four years ago. (My wife didn't teach full time until about 10 years ago. Her guaranteed pension, as of the date it was terminated, was something like $17 a month. I can hardly wait!)

Anyway, I suggested that its mostly people without pensions who are paying, by their taxes, the salaries and benefits of public sector employees. Why should public sector employees (who already have unions, civil service and Shakman protections) also have pensions their neighbors no longer have?

My suggested exemption for police officers and fire fighters was based on the notion that these individuals put their lives on the line on every shift.

Until the other day, only Dave left a comment on that post. But now a second comment has appeared which I reproduce here in full:
Why make pension exemptions to police and fire? You mention risk, "putting their lives on the line" but these public union jobs [don't] even make the top ten hazardous occupations list.
Besides, public safety pensions make up over 70% of municipal pension obligations, so if you're going to make a cut, it makes sense to start with the greatest abusers of pension entitlements, police and fire.

You're the reason real pension reform [won't] occur when you whore out your preferences to fire fighters and such.

[B]ecause, when you state that governments are bankrupt, [don't] have the money, but then go ahead and make exceptions, no one takes you seriously.
My first thought was to reply that the most dangerous occupation must be this guy's food taster -- but it occurred to me that that would be just stooping to the commenter's level.

If police officer and fire fighter are not among the 10 most hazardous occupations, what are the 10 most dangerous occupations?

According to this August 28, 2010 post on Yahoo! Finance (by Les Christie of the 10 most dangerous occupations in America are:
  1. Fisherman,
  2. Logger,
  3. Airplane Pilots,
  4. Farmers and Ranchers,
  5. Roofers,
  6. Ironworkers,
  7. Sanitation Worker,
  8. Industrial Machinist,
  9. Truckers and Drivers/Sales Workers, and
  10. Construction Laborer.

The last of these 10 most dangerous occupations, construction laborer, supposedly has a fatality rate of 18.3 per 100,000 workers. If I am reading this statistic correctly, on an annual basis, we can expect 18.3 deaths for every 100,000 persons engaged in the occupation of construction worker. This is the same death rate as expected for hazardous occupation no. 9, "Truckers and Drivers/Sales Workers." The death rate for Industrial Machinists is given at 18.5 per 100,000 persons. The death rate for Sanitation Workers is given at 25.2 per 100,000.

This last one shocked me. I've heard of guys employed by Streets and San being found in automobile trunks from time to time, but these unsolved mysteries were never assumed to have been caused by picking up garbage. I have lived in Chicago a long time, and I've never heard of a line of duty death involving a worker on a garbage truck.

But I have heard of Chicago police officers dying in the line of duty -- several this past year. So I inquired further and discovered this December 28, 2010 article by Patrik Jonsson on the Christian Science Monitor website. In the article, Jonsson writes that there were 160 deaths among American law enforcement officers in 2010. He adds that there are "about 800,000 active local, state, and federal law-enforcement officers in the US." Doing the math, I come up with a fatality rate for police officers in 2010 of 20 per 100,000 -- above three of the 10 allegedly most dangerous occupations.

But still below "Sanitation Workers."

I could not find comparable figures for firefighter line of duty deaths. The United States Fire Administration, a division of FEMA, reported "there were 85 onduty firefighter fatalities in the United States as a result of incidents that occurred in 2010, a 6 percent decrease from the 90 fatalities reported for 2009. The 85 fatalities were spread across 31 states. Illinois experienced the highest number of fatalities (9)." There were 90 firefighter fatalities in 2009. But that doesn't give me a total number of firefighters or even define the term. However, it apparently includes professional urban departments, like the Chicago Fire Department, as well as rural volunteer companies and even smoke jumpers -- the guys who jump in the middle of forest fires.

Therein lies the problem with these statistics. I can't believe that police officers or firefighters have a lesser risk of on-the-job fatality than the guy who picks up the trash. My experience tells me it ain't so. Some inside-the-numbers and inside-the-definitions exploration is clearly warranted in order to figure this out -- but this is, of course, impossible from the linked articles alone.

And then there was the contention raised by my anonymous friend that "public safety pensions make up over 70% of municipal pension obligations." Sadly, he did not provide a source for that claim either. While police and fire make up a sizable chunk of any city budget, I wonder if 70% isn't high. I would guess that the number can't take into account teacher pensions (in Illinois these are paid from a different fund and school boards are separate taxing entities). But I just don't know.

To use my new friend's colorful phrase, I wanted to 'whore around' some more and investigate this claim, but I flat ran out of time today. Perhaps I can come back to the topic again. Or someone may provide some additional facts in a comment?


Going Like Sixty said...

I believe the stats from CNNMoney.

They seem logical.

Firefighters and cops don't take foolish, unnecessary risks. They have the absolute best equipment, they test it thoroughly, they train constantly for the worst case scenario but are hardly ever in a worst-case situation. When they are in an unsafe condition they are backed up by others who are also fully equipped and trained. Their chain of command stresses safety at every bend.

Remember, what you see on tv and the movies is not real. Cops don't get in shoot-outs a lot and firefighters don't charge into burning buildings to rescue babies a lot.

Another point: there are a lot of layers to Cops and Fire - the folks that never are in harm's way...

Makes perfect sense to me.

I am surprised that Mineworker didn't make the top ten.

The fact that deaths of sanitation workers didn't grab the headlines is understandable too.

Dave said...

I don't have any facts for you; but, it strikes me that fatalities are less than, what, half the picture? I'd be more interested in statistics that include at least serious injuries by occupation. There, non-safety occupations might creep up even more in the dangerous calculus.

The Curmudgeon said...

Going Like 60 -- no question that some of these occupations in the CNN Money list are particularly dangerous. My father was an adjuster for an insurance company with a large book of rural customers -- and he used to marvel, he told me, at the creative ways that farmers found to injure, maim and even kill themselves. And he worked for that company in the early 1950s.

But I still have to wonder about the alleged dangers faced by 'sanitation workers' because the passing of a worker from Streets and San in the line of duty would surely be in the news here -- and I've never seen any such. Maybe it is otherwise in the boonies, where they have one man trucks and lifting arms?

One thing is certain: Firefighters and cops (especially cops) never see us at our best. Cops see the worst of us (criminals) or us at our worst (as victims). Even when they interact with us on speeding tickets, they're not exactly seeing the public at its best, are they?

Dave's got an interesting point, too, when he expresses an interest in seeing how many non-fatal injuries are suffered by workers in these various occupations. I wonder if police and fire injuries might not be higher, proportionately, than injuries in other occupations since police and fire have to encounter dangerous situations as part of their jobs?