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.

"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.

"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.

"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.

The company does offer another retirement benefit: a 401(k), started in 1990. The 401(k) allows for a maximum 15 percent annual employee contribution. Rural/Metro matches up to 2 percent, at the company's discretion.

The stock program was terminated in 1999. The 401(k) continues, although the last company contribution was made in December 2000, for 1999.

There is a new retirement benefit, of sorts. When Rural/Metro signed its first union contract with Maricopa County firefighters in 2000, it agreed to give firefighters 3 percent of their salaries on top of their base pay, to put toward retirement. The firefighters are encouraged to put the 3 percent into the 401(k), or they could put it in another retirement plan -- or simply pocket the cash.

So, here are a Rural/Metro firefighter's retirement benefits:

• Whatever he has left in Rural/Metro stock.

• Whatever he's put into his 401(k), plus the company's 2 percent, if the company decides to contribute.

• Three percent of his salary, which he can put in his 401(k) or another retirement plan.

Compare that with a Tempe firefighter's retirement benefits:

• Arizona Public Safety Retirement pension.

The employee puts in 4.65 percent of his salary; the city of Tempe contributes 3 percent. In exchange, the firefighter can retire after 20 years at 50 percent of his base pay (averaged from the top three of his last 10 years of employment). Or he can retire after 32 years, with 80 percent of his base pay.

• A 457 plan (like a 401[k], but for public employees) with an annual match of at least $650.

• Post-retirement health benefits plan, funded at 100 percent.

Now consider if the firefighter dies on the job.

Tempe firefighter:

• Spouse gets a full pension for life.

• A $250,000 lump-sum payment from the federal public safety officer benefit program.

• Life insurance policy, doubled if he's killed in the line of duty.

• Kids get a partial pension.

Rural/Metro firefighter:

• Two years' salary.

• Benefits from a workers' compensation plan.

There is one death benefit Rural/Metro firefighters share with public firefighters: In the case of death, the firefighters' kids get full tuition at the Arizona state university of their choice. That is a state law.

Given that, why would anyone want to be a Rural/Metro firefighter?

Good question, says one fortysomething firefighter with more than 15 years on the job. He hadn't dreamed of being a firefighter; he was just looking for a job when a friend suggested Rural/Metro.

Like others, the firefighter says he was young and naive. Didn't really think much about retirement. And why worry? He was a stockholder in a growing company.

The stock "doubled and doubled and doubled and they kept coming out and telling us you're going to be millionaires," he recalls. At its peak, his stock was worth well more than $500,000.

When the stock started to slide, the firefighter considered selling his 50 percent, but he says it was a tough decision because of the way the stock was sold. The company told him it would have up to three months to sell it, and the firefighter was worried that wouldn't be advantageous to him.

"If it went down a dollar, there's $20,000. So I was afraid that they were going to screw me. Now I wish I'd done it," he says.

And when the stock dove? "I immediately upped my 401(k) to as much as I could put in and figured I'd work until I died."

Now, he says, firefighting is all he knows, and he's too old to go to get hired at another department. "Even if I went somewhere else today, we're still talking 20 years before I'd get 50 percent of my salary [in a pension]."

A career change, he says, is out of the question. "In this job climate? How do I reproduce my income? How do you go somewhere else and make over $50,000?"

He hates talking about money. "We have a funny job. You don't do it for a paycheck, you do it because that's what you're about."

But without his retirement savings, the firefighter can't talk about anything else. The way he figures it, he's owed.

"We're here in this city when people are born and when they die. In the past week I've seen more deaths than you'll probably see in your entire life. You know, how do you put a price on sitting there comforting someone as they're dying, or as you're saving their life?"

Last year, Steve Springborn, president of the United Firefighters of Maricopa County, approached Rural/Metro with a proposal for a pension.

The pension would be similar to that of public firefighters in the state, but it would be a 25-year pension, rather than 20. Under the proposal, each firefighter would put in 7.65 percent of his salary. Springborn says there would be no additional cost to the company; Rural/Metro's burden would be almost exactly that of the 2 percent 401(k) match it makes (or might make) now.

Springborn says Rural/Metro has refused even to discuss the proposal.

Ted Beam, president of the company's Fire Integrated Response Group, acknowledges Rural/Metro has not discussed the proposal with the union.

It doesn't sound like progress is likely. Beam says he understands that by law Rural/Metro must bargain on certain matters, such as benefits, but adds that it's unfair for the union to make such a proposal when its contract is not up until 2003. He calls it cherry-picking.

Springborn says, "I could understand the company being upset if we were coming back and wanting to amend our contract in a way that cost the company money. But the union developed a pension that will not cost an additional dime to Rural/Metro."

But Beam says the proposal would cost Rural/Metro more than Springborn estimates. He cites the administrative costs of transferring a percentage of an employee's salary into a pension fund as an example of additional costs.

Springborn insists the costs would be negligible.

"How much more is it going to cost for them to transfer 2 percent off my gross and write a check to the pension fund?" he asks.

One thing that Springborn and Beam can agree on is that there's nothing in the current proposal that would particularly benefit the 35-plus firefighters. The union obviously doesn't have the clout to demand expensive provisions that would bolster older employees' retirement funds. Springborn says he wanted to make an initial pension proposal that would not cost Rural/Metro any additional money. But he adds that the union is "working on a program to find a way to take care of the members who have dedicated their lives to these communities. We can't change what happened in the past; we can only make things better in the future."

No details yet.

There's not much sympathy at Rural/Metro headquarters. Beam, who started as a Scottsdale firefighter in 1978, says he was in the same situation as other stockholding firefighters, but he sold his 50 percent in early 1998, before the stock dropped.

"I feel horrible about the guy who didn't do that," Beam says, adding that he recalls going to company meetings where firefighters were advised to diversify their stocks. (The firefighters interviewed for this story remember just the opposite.)

Rural/Metro officials say their employee stockholders' requests to sell their disposable stock (50 percent) were never denied or delayed.

And as for the firefighters' future? "Obviously, 60- and 70-year-old firefighters aren't going to be fighting fire because they have to pass a fitness test . . . and they have to pass a physical agility test," Beam says. (Ironically, those requirements came as a result of unionizing.)

But just because they can't fight fires doesn't mean they can't work for Rural/Metro, Beam says. They could work dispatch, or in training or education. "They can move into the administration path."

And maybe run the company one day?

"My perspective would be, well, yeah, I want all 298 firefighters to have the mindset that I want to be CEO. I want them all to advance and work hard."

Not such a shabby proposition. Another of the firefighters' gripes is the high salaries and bonuses given to recent Rural/Metro CEOs. Jerry Brucker, the current one, is making more than $700,000 at a time when the company's not sure it can afford a 2 percent match to its employees' 401(k)s.

The question of whether the firefighters were allowed to sell their own stock when they wanted to is unresolved. What's clear, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, is that there was a flurry of stock sales by Rural/Metro executives in late 1997 and early 1998, just before the company's stock dropped. Lou Jekel, Rural/Metro's attorney and secretary of the board, sold 6,000 shares at an undisclosed amount (it was in a family trust, so he didn't have to list the price, but the stock was valued at about $30 a share) in late January 1998.

At the beginning of March, with the stock price hovering above $33 a share, Rural/Metro board member James Bolin sold more than 20,000 shares. Board member Cor Clement optioned 6,250 shares of stock at $13 and sold it the same day, March 10, for a $20-a-share profit. Earlier that week, he had sold another 5,000 shares.

But the biggest seller was Bob Ramsey, the company's executive vice president, who had sold Rural/Metro his ambulance company, Southwest Ambulance. Ramsey started selling his stock in late 1997. Between October 31, 1997, and March 6, 1998, Ramsey sold more than 500,000 shares at anywhere from $29 to $35.

The sales are the subject of two pending class-action lawsuits filed by people who bought Rural/Metro stock between April 1997 and June 1998. Among the charges, the suits allege that Rural/Metro executives bought artificially inflated stock using insider information.

Gregg Hillman, a stock analyst with First Wilshire Securities Management in Pasadena, California, who has watched Rural/Metro, says the huge stock sales hurt the company even before business began to really sour.

In the fall of 1998, with the stock below $10 a share, Rural/Metro directors began to make purchases. Ramsey alone bought hundreds of thousands of shares.

Even the fortysomething firefighters who were able to sell some of their stock when the price was high are hurting.

One says he was allowed to sell 25 percent of his stock, but the company sold the stock at a "rolled" price over a three-month period. He lost $7 a share.

"I didn't understand it and I didn't question it," he says. "It was very insulting, but I didn't pursue it at the time because the funds I put it into did very well."

Unlike Ted Beam, this firefighter says he was discouraged from selling his stock. "They said I was crazy to do it," he says, although "they didn't stand in my way. It was more like, that's not a sound decision. I wanted to diversify. Glad I did."

Instead of meetings where he was encouraged to diversify, the employee recalls "flip charts and bar charts" showing how much he'd get over a 20-year period, if he didn't sell. "They were projecting ridiculous growth. It was unbelievable for me because I'd been buying stocks for a while. That was during the you're-all-going-to-be-millionaires talks."

Even with his other investments, which have done well, the firefighter figures he'll have to retire at 65.

His hope is that the cities and towns that contract with Rural/Metro -- including the one he works for -- will break away and form their own public fire departments. That's not out of the question; Sun City, Sun City West, Gilbert and the Salt River Indian Community have all parted company with Rural/Metro. Whether to keep Rural/Metro service or start its own fire department has been the source of intense political debate for months in the town of Fountain Hills.

The firefighter says he went to work for Rural/Metro so he could serve his hometown, but the decision has not served him well.

If he joins the state retirement system, he'd only have to put in a few more years to get a major portion of his retirement, the firefighter says.

He hopes it happens soon.

"I'm starting to hurt after fires. I'm almost 50 years old, and I have nowhere to go."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.