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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."

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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.