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Private Firefighters and Raising First Responders' Salaries


By Allison G. S. Knox
Contributor, EDM Digest

California’s two major wildfires this month quickly became the focal point of the news media. To manage the fires, emergency managers requested assistance from numerous states through mutual aid agreements at the local and state levels of government. Volunteers and organizations also came together to help extinguish the fires.

According to an article in The Atlantic, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West hired private firefighters to protect their home from the wildfire that threatened the Malibu area. While their action was unusual, it raised interesting questions:

  • Is there a need for independent firefighter contractors?
  • How would this type of private enterprise potentially affect the wages of municipal first responders?

Low Salaries for First Responders across the US

It’s well-known that first responders do not earn a lot of money. In some parts of the country, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics make shockingly low wages.

According to EMS1, the average salary of emergency medical technicians is $31,000 a year. Their annual salaries range between $20,000 and $50,000. In many cases, EMTs must work two jobs to make ends meet.

Adding to the disparity of salaries, many municipalities hire volunteers to help manage their 911 calls, which further affects EMS payscales.

Competition in the Marketplace

Many economists argue that when there is no competition, organizations do not work as well as they could and income levels remain stagnant. Would salaries be higher if there were competition between public and private first responders? Would wage scales be better if, say, municipalities could hire for-profit firefighters and EMTs?

A for-profit organization might have a large impact on the overall wage structure and the hiring of public first responders. If private organizations paid their firefighters and other first responders substantially more than their colleagues in the public sector, there would be a drain on public EMTs and firefighters. Also, private sector EMTs and firefighters would place great pressure on municipalities’ budgets.

We’ve seen something similar in the government’s use of independent contractors like Blackwater, which hires former servicemembers to form an army of privateers to conduct operations overseas. According to Payscale.com, their average annual salary is $141,000. What effect would a Blackwater-type cadre of private EMT personnel and firefighters have on our nation’s public first responders?

Many municipal budgets cannot afford to pay high salaries to their public servants. However, if there were more for-profit firefighting organizations, they might eventually influence the wage structures of public first responders in positive way.

Allison G. S. Knox Passionate about the issues affecting ambulances and disaster management, Allison focuses on Emergency Management and Emergency Medical Services policy. Allison has taught at the undergraduate level since 2010. Prior to teaching, she worked in a level-one trauma center emergency department and for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. She holds four master’s degrees in Emergency Management, National Security Studies, International Relations, and History; a Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security; and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. Allison is an Emergency Medical Technician, Lifeguard, and Lifeguard Instructor, and is trained in Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue. She serves on the Board of Trustees for Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society as Chancellor of the Southeast Region, Vice Chair of the Tactical Emergency Medical Support Committee with the International Public Safety Association, and serves as the Advocacy Coordinator of Virginia with the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. She is also a member of several committees including the Editorial Committee with APCO, the Rescue Task Force Committee with the International Public Safety Association, and the Advocacy Committee with the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. She also serves as Chair of the Leadership Development Program for the 2020 Pi Gamma Mu Triennial Convention. Allison has published several book reviews and continues to write about issues affecting ambulances, emergency management, and homeland security.