The man or woman who runs into the burning building (when everyone else is running out of it) seems to deserve the adoration of a hero. But to classify a firefighter as such is to forget that this is his or her career. Bravery is listed on the job description. “We do not consider ourselves heroes, and the majority are very humble,” said former captain Scott Miller of Compton in Los Angeles County, Calif.
“We’re actually very uncomfortable in that role,” added captain John Ceriello of the New York City Fire Department. Like the rest of us in other, less pressure-packed, professions, firefighters have it better (or worse) in some cities compared to others. We considered three data points – median salary, cost of living and location quotient – as well as the perspectives of Miller and Ceriello to determine what U.S. cities are the best places for these honorable professionals to call home. More on our methodology below.
Best 5 Cities for Firefighters
Of the 322 cities reporting data, these five earned our best score, comprising the factors of median salary, cost of living and location quotient. Speaking of salary, the 308,790 firefighters employed in the U.S. in 2014 earned $48,750 on average, or an hourly wage of $23.44, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (These figures are up from $45,250 and $21.75, respectively, from 2012.)
1. Port St. Lucie, Fla.
The first of three Florida cities atop the rankings, Port St. Lucie separated itself because of cost of living. It is 11 percent cheaper to live here than it is in the next city on this list. The expansive St. Lucie County Fire District, which has eight stations in the city of the same name, was formed in 1906; had an initial budget of $1,000; and called its firefighters to action using a steam whistle at the city’s power plant.
2. West Palm Beach, Fla.
Fifty miles down the coast from Port St. Lucie, West Palm Beach scored highly in each of our three categories. West Palm Beach’s fire department, comprising eight stations, was founded not long after the city was in 1894. The department’s criteria for its firefighters has undoubtedly changed in the years since. Like any place else, West Palm Beach isn’t perfect for firefighters; they were recently in a battle for their pensions.
3. Miami, Fla.
Another 70 miles down Florida’s Eastern coastline, the metro Miami area has the most firefighting jobs (3,550) among the top five and the 13th-most overall. Now with 14 stations, the City of Miami Fire-Rescue Department was formed by five men in a bar 18 months after a fire burned half of their downtown on Christmas Eve in 1896, causing fire insurance premiums to spike. Since 1935, the city also has had a credit union for firefighters employed or retired from nearby departments. Interested in becoming a firefighter in South Beach? Miami Dade College’s School of Justice offers a 450-hour course on gaining an in-state firefighter certification.
4. Tacoma, Wash.
Actually tying Miami in score, Tacoma cracked the top five mainly because of its annual average salary of $78,320, which is the country’s seventh-highest compensation for the position. The city’s 15-station department traces its roots to 1881, when it served less than 1,000 residents. Now that it serves more than 200,000, the department has a more arduous hiring process for future firefighters. For those looking to get in shape for a possible firefighting career in the city, Tacoma Gym & Fitness Center offers a training program for those needing to take the Physical Abilities Test (PAT).
5. Barnstable Town, Mass.
A town among cities, Barnstable overcame its high cost of living figure by registering a high location quotient, meaning that there is likely more demand for firefighters here than elsewhere. This is despite the fact that its department has just one station. Massachusetts is the friendliest state overall for firefighters, with 11 of its metro areas ranking in the top 30 (list below); Brockton, Mass., is next on the list at seventh overall.
Top 30 Cities for Firefighters
Here's a quick look at the top 30 places for firefighters to live and work in the US.
Cost of Living
|Port St. Lucie, FL||$62,640||610||2.10||91||78|
|West Palm Beach-Boca Raton-Boynton Beach, FL||$70,180||1,980||1.59||102||87|
|Miami-Miami Beach-Kendall, FL||$76,000||3,550||1.48||112||94|
|Barnstable Town, MA||$57,800||480||2.12||161||103|
|Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL||$52,360||1,150||2.25||188||110|
|Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA||$61,120||370||1.85||176||112|
|Shreveport-Bossier City, LA||$51,150||860||2.23||91||120|
On Topic: Becoming a Firefighter
Ceriello is a 27-year veteran of the FDNY, beginning his career as a volunteer fireman on Long Island at the age of 19 in 1981. “My Dad was a long time member of the company, I followed his footsteps,” he said. “The test for the FDNY came up a short time later. I liked that line of work and took the test.
“There is a written test that I scored a 99 on – it was not a very difficult test. Then you are invited to take a physical agility test. That was very difficult, and I did well on it. I got hired in February 1988. I believe we did 8 weeks (of training) back then.
Like Ceriello, Miller started as a volunteer in high school before becoming an EMT and eventually joining his department. He undertook training that included 12 weeks of book work, plus physical tests comprising the job duties, from raising ladders to pulling hoses. His active career spanned 18 years before injury forced his retirement.
“It was difficult (to get a job) then and is even harder now,” the recent retiree said. “Thousands of applicants apply for few openings.
On Topic: Unique to His City
Ceriello: “The FDNY is the top of the heap. We are the largest in the U.S. and number two in the world, behind Tokyo. That being said there are many different parts of the city, and you need to understand how to handle all these different aspects to the fire service. Many of the departments I know around the country tend to have very limited manpower or lack of funding. We do not have that issue.”
Miller: “I worked in a ‘ghetto’ area during the 80s and 90s, the heyday of the drug and gang wars… and had a wide variety of incidents and experience that 99 percent of firefighters do not get… Some (friends of mine) work in slower areas and do not get the proper experience. Some work in places like New York City, where they can relate to what I had gone through. Most other areas can't relate to the massive brush fires though.”
On Topic: Day-to-day Routine
Ceriello: “Right now I’m assigned to the training division, so it’s like a 9-to-5 gig. However when you’re in the firehouse doing 24-hour tours, it's a different world. In the course of the day and night you are on call to be ready for whatever is thrown your way. Some days are busier than others. In between you are doing maintenance on the firehouse and all the equipment. Training is mandatory during the shift. There can be hydrant inspection and building inspection. You can be called out on complaints for the public. Every day is different, and that is what draws many to the job.”
Miller: “Start out with a report from the person you relieve about last shift activity, condition of tools and equipment, et cetera. Then I would check every compartment of the rig to make sure everything is there and ready to go. Morning briefing by the officer in charge, morning house work, clean up the station. That could lead to a number of things such as building inspections, training, drills, meals, et cetera, all the while responding to any calls in between.”
On Topic: Rigors vs Rewards
Ceriello: “It is extremely physically and mentally challenging, but it is very rewarding when you have made a positive outcome for those who in most cases may be having the worst day of their lives.”
Miller: “It can take a toll on your mind and body, especially in a department where you run more calls than most others. Being awakened many times during the night, if you get to sleep at all, and seeing the worst that human nature has to offer… but being there when people need you the most is the best. Putting out a fire before is causes severe damage gets the adrenaline going and a job-well-done feeling. Kids waving at you as you go by or a ‘thank you’ or hug from a grateful person, not to mention the pay and benefits. Best job in the world.”
On Topic: Technology in the Field
Ceriello: “I’m in training working to continue the progression of the fire service into the 21st century. The FDNY is very progressive however there is still much work to be done to stay on top of the curve… I have had the privilege in working with NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) and UL (Underwriters Laboratories) in research into the changing nature of fires. We have been able to change the way we fight fires. Really understanding the fire dynamics on a science level which allows us to make better decisions on the ground. We also have other technological advancement like thermal imaging and tracking. However overreliance on those tools can be problematic when they fail, as all electronics can.”
Miller: “The basics used 100 years ago are still the basic ways to extinguish fire and save lives. Only the equipment to accomplish that has changed and there have been no real big technological advances in years. It has just become a bit easier to do some of the jobs with lighter weight materials, computers, et cetera.”
On Topic: Women in the Department
According to a national report card produced by the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services estimated that 50 percent of fire departments don’t have a single female firefighter.
Miller: “I see more women trying to become firefighters and have for years. There are many great female firefighters and many poor ones. The biggest problem is that some do not and cannot get the upper body strength that is required. And because of affirmative action over the years, many departments lower their standards in order for some females to pass the testing. I do not agree with that.”
These were the three key questions we asked in coming up with the list.
1. What can firefighters earn in the city?
We ranked the best cities for firefighters based on the median annual pay. Income is likely the most important factor people consider when starting their career or relocating elsewhere. A high salary in an expensive city, however, may be less attractive than a lower salary in an affordable town. Our next metric takes affordability into consideration.
2. How affordable is it to live in this city?
Now that we have the median salary, we’ll look next at the cost of living. The cost of living is a measure of how far earnings can be stretched. Cities with lower cost of living index numbers ranked higher in our study. For example, the average city is benchmarked at 100. A city with a cost of living index of 154, such as Salinas, Calif., would mean that generally speaking, living expenses are 65 percent more expensive compared to the average city.
3. What is the location quotient for firefighters in the city?
A place with a high median salary and low cost of living may seem perfect, but job opportunities may be limited. Our third factor accounts for this by favoring cities with high location quotients. Location quotient measures the concentration of firefighters in an area as a percentage of all occupations, and then compares that to the national average. We interpret a higher location quotient to mean a relatively higher demand for a firefighters’ services.