Aging Rural/Metro firefighters can't afford to retire

"When it's time to go, he doesn't want to be brought back," explains one of his colleagues. "He has no way to take care of himself. He's a great fireman. He's just worn out."

Most of the firefighters interviewed for this story admit they're no financial wizards. But they say Rural/Metro executives took advantage of that, promising that the company was doing well even as some higher-ups were selling their own stock.

Kevin Scanlon

"Up until it took a dump, man, [company executives said] 'everything's wonderful, you guys are the greatest,'" one firefighter says. "And of course, us being stupid firemen, we bought into it."

He thinks back to his first days at Rural/Metro, more than 20 years ago. "The job was cool, it was a lot of fun. I wasn't thinking long-term or anything like that," he says. "I was young, I had a lot of time. And they painted a real pretty picture about it."

Again and again, the firefighters say, they were told they'd be millionaires.

"It gave me a lot of incentive to work and save money. . . . I'm going to have more money to retire on than these guys in Phoenix, yadda, yadda, yadda. I bought it hook, line and sinker."

In the '90s, the company started a 401(k) in addition to the stock program, but this firefighter barely noticed, saying he was told his stock would take care of him so he didn't need to worry about donating to another retirement plan. He put 2 percent of his pay into the 401(k) only because Rural/Metro was matching it.

When his stock hit $37 a share in the mid-1990s, the firefighter says he tried to sell it. The stock program prohibited him from selling more than 50 percent without leaving the company, but he says he wasn't allowed to sell any of it -- he was told it would "adversely affect the company."

"Even 50 percent would have been like having a mattress to sleep on the floor," the firefighter's wife says. "Instead, we don't even have a thin blanket."

She laughs. "We do joke about this. If we joke or we laugh, that's how we deal with this. Firemen are good at it; it's how they deal with their stress."

The next moment, though, she's in tears, asked what sort of stress her husband faces on the job. "Oh, God. I don't know if I can talk about it right now. That September 11 thing has really gotten to us. I think about some of the stuff and -- he's never been severely hurt. He's been extremely lucky."

But he's seen dead children. People who've blown off their own heads. "He's gone on calls where the firemen have to hold back so the cops can secure the area because there's some idiot with a gun."

That kind of thing is a young man's game. So are the fires.

"I'd hate to see a crew of 60-year-old firemen coming to my house to fight a fire," the firefighter says. "Just hand me the phone, let me call the insurance company and tell them it's a total loss."

His stock is worth less than $10,000. His 401(k)'s got about $35,000 in it, but he can't touch that for years, without big tax penalties. He'll stay on the job.

"I'll just work 'til I die, I guess. That's about all I can do," he says. "All I know is that's the only way I can provide anything for my family, so I've got to do it."

He may just do that. Firefighters have lung problems from inhaling smoke and toxic fumes, and a high rate of traffic accidents from screaming through traffic to a fire scene. They encounter infectious diseases more than most of us; cancer rates are scary.

And firefighters have a higher incidence of heart disease than people in any other profession.

In 1948, a guy named Lou Witzeman started a fire company for a simple reason. His community, which would later officially become the city of Scottsdale, didn't have one. Witzeman collected money from neighbors, hired a couple of firefighters, and Rural/Metro was born.

Today, Rural/Metro provides ambulance service in hundreds of communities, but fire protection in just a few, mainly in Arizona. Along with the Maricopa County entities it serves, Rural/Metro has fire departments in Pima and Yuma counties and Knoxville, Tennessee. Only Maricopa County's firefighters are unionized, although Pima County and Knoxville are attempting to.

There are still some Rural/Metro firefighters around who remember the days when the company had a pension. Rural/Metro contributed 4 percent, the employee 1 percent. The retirement age was 59.5; pension amounts varied depending on salary and title.

Witzeman cashed out the pensions in 1978 and "sold" the company to the employees, who began receiving retirement benefits in the form of stock. For well more than a decade, no stock could be sold until the employee left the company. In 1993, when Rural/Metro went public, the rules changed to allow employees to sell up to 50 percent of their stock while still employed.

And even if a Rural/Metro employee were to quit or retire, that additional 50 percent of his stock could not be sold for three years -- way more than enough time, for someone with bad timing, for the stock to become almost worthless.

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