Aging Rural/Metro firefighters can't afford to retire

One morning not long ago, several firefighters gathered around a kitchen table to lament their impending old age.

It's a lot tougher to slide down that pole than it used to be. Heck, just getting out of bed can be a challenge. Those 3 a.m. bells clang louder than they used to. The guys have got achy elbows and knees and backs.

"It takes longer to pee now," one admits.

Kevin Scanlon
Kevin Scanlon

"And a lot more often, too," another adds.

These are healthy looking men -- a little roughed up, maybe, all on the north side of 40 -- and certainly not folks you'd expect to be contemplating retirement.

But the sad truth is that the expiration date on a firefighter's career comes a lot sooner than for most others. Hauling 75 pounds of equipment into a burning building takes its toll. So does dragging a drowned toddler from a swimming pool and trying to revive a gunshot victim.

That's why public firefighters -- like the ones who work for Phoenix, Tempe and Glendale -- have the option of retiring with a pension after 20 years of service, sometimes as young as 38.

That would just about retire every firefighter around this kitchen table. But these men work for Rural/Metro. They didn't get pensions when they hired on. They got stock. And when it tanked, so did their futures.

Rural/Metro Corporation is a private company headquartered in Scottsdale, with 10,000 employees and operations all over the world. Eighty-five percent of Rural/Metro's business comes from running ambulances, but in a few parts of the country -- including Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Cave Creek, Carefree, Rio Verde, Litchfield Park, Queen Creek and the unincorporated areas of Maricopa County -- it provides fire protection.

The company boomed in the 1980s and up through the mid-'90s, when privatization was considered an economic cure-all -- particularly in a place like Arizona, a right-to-work state with a conservative bent, eager to experiment.

But this particular experiment went bad in 1998, when the company's stock took a dive. It was a combination of factors, analysts say. Rural/Metro was having trouble collecting from customers. Earnings were below projections. The company had grown too quickly.

Rural/Metro's employees, including 300 or so firefighters in Maricopa County, were feeling the heat. Stock that had once soared close to $40 a share ultimately bottomed out at around 40 cents. So a guy with $800,000 in stock for his retirement suddenly found himself with $8,000. Bad luck? Not just that, insist firefighters who say that they tried to sell their stock before it crashed, and the sales were either denied or delayed by Rural/Metro. That's similar to one allegation about Enron under investigation by Congress.

The drop finally prompted the Rural/Metro firefighters to unionize -- and they did win some concessions for their 300 or so members.

But for the dozens of firefighters 35 and older, it's too little, too late.

This week, Rural/Metro stock was valued at about 64 cents a share. The company hasn't made its voluntary 2 percent match to employees' 401(k) plans since 1999 (and that year's match was made in stock, rather than cash). The firefighters are anxiously waiting until March 14 to see if Rural/Metro makes its match for 2000. That's the deadline for getting the tax break for making the contribution, so if Rural/Metro doesn't do it by then, it's unlikely it will ever be done.

The firefighters see the 401(k) contribution as a benchmark of both Rural/Metro's financial health and the company's willingness to treat its workers fairly. They point to the fact that CEO Jack Brucker recently got a hefty pay raise -- to more than $700,000 a year, including a signing bonus. And they note that no one stopped Rural/Metro executives from selling their stocks at huge profits in 1998, just before the stock plunged.

Now the union is trying to secure its members' future. At the top of the wish list: a pension plan. But Rural/Metro has yet to even discuss it. And in any case, the plan, which would offer a 25-year pension, wouldn't help a fortysomething firefighter retire before 65. A Rural/Metro firefighter starts at about $33,000; the fortysomething guys make around $50,000. Firefighters say that's comparable to other departments in the Valley.

All the firefighters interviewed by New Times insisted on anonymity, fearful for their jobs. Even union officials have told them not to talk publicly while the union tries to work out a deal.

But the firefighters say it's time to talk. They've waited years for their stock to regain its value, and years for the union to gain enough power to fight on their behalf. Neither has happened, and now it looks as though Rural/Metro won't even make the 2 percent match on their 401(k)s.

And so these firefighters hunkering around their oversize Circle K coffee cups on a chilly January morning say they simply can't afford to retire, and intend to stay on the job into their 60s and 70s. Or until they die.

It's well known that one older Rural/Metro firefighter carries a "Do Not Resuscitate" card with him. He shows it to everyone.

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