Firefighter Salary is Higher than it Looks

Some firefighter salary levels top out around $400,000 a year including overtime. That’s a lot bigger than the national statistics would indicate. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the typical firefighter salary at just $45,970. In some top metro areas, the top 10% of firefighters make around $121,000.

Even on the typical firefighter salary of $45,970 a year, it’s possible to save $4.4 million. Some firefighters use “pension spiking” to boost their retirement income. They log high overtime hours in the years before retirement, inflating retirement salary to abnormally high levels.

Firefighter Salary Facts

The city with the highest firefighter pay in the country is Oakland, California with an average firefighter salary of $90,000. The state with the lowest is West Virginia, with $29,180.

There are 330,000 firefighter jobs in the U.S. While fighting fires is seen as a low-pay profession, the reality is that it’s possible to earn a lot more than the average. Some firefighters even without a “Chief” or “Lieutenant” designation earn over $300,000 a year.

Firefighter Salary Facts
Highest firefighter salary in the U.S.$400,000 (includes overtime)
Typical firefighter salary in the U.S.$45,970
How much an employee can save on a typical firefighter salary over a 40 year career$4.4 million
State with the lowest average firefighter salaryWest Virginia ($29,180)
City with the highest average firefighter salaryOakland, CA ($90,000)
Typical firefighter salary vs typical doctor salary1/4 as big
Typical smokejumper firefighter salary in the U.S.$43,125
How some firefighters retire rich with a huge pension firefighter salaryWith "pension spiking." They work high overtime just before retirement to set retirement pay at abnormally high levels.
Number of firefighter salary jobs in the U.S.330,000
Growth in number of firefighter salary jobs per year5% (that's average growth for a career)

Also see: NBA Salary

Top Firefighter Salaries

Firefighter SalaryThe public perception is that it isn’t possible to get rich on a firefighter salary. The truth is it depends heavily on two factors: Location and overtime.

According to San Francisco’s public records, firefighters are among the top ten highest paid public employees on record. The table below shows four of the top ten salaries in the city of San Francisco. The data is from the 2012-2013 fiscal year.

Note that three of the top five highest paid firefighters in the city are Battalion Chiefs. One is a Lieutenant. However, the #4 firefighter salary in the city is a firefighter/EMT with no special designation. The job description most likely didn’t require a college education. That employee earned $129,141 in regular firefighter salary and $179,235 in overtime. Overtime is the biggest part of the paycheck for all five firefighters listed below.

Top Firefighter Salary List (San Francisco)
Firefighter SalaryNameJob Title
$393,430James VannucchiFirefighter, Battalion Chief
$343,730Gary AltenbergFirefighter, Lieutenant
$338,751Brendan WardFirefighter, Battalion Chief
$334,190Samson LaiFirefighter, Battalion Chief
$326,140Frederick BinkleyFirefighter/EMT/Paramedic


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Typical Firefighter Salary

The typical firefighter salary is more down to earth. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median firefighter salary in the country is $45,970. That works out to $23 per hour. The highest median is in LA and Oakland California at $121,000. That doesn’t include overtime. The lowest firefighter salary on record is Wisconsin’s bottom end pay at just $16,870 per year.

Median Firefighter Salary
Firefighter BracketSalaryHourly
Median firefighter salary in America:$45,970$23
Highest median firefighter salary (LA & Oakland CA)$121,000$61
Lowest median firefighter salary (Wisconsin)$16,870$8

Firefighter Salary vs Other Jobs

Firefighter Salary ComparisonHow does a firefighter salary stack up to other career choices? The table below shows the breakdown. When measured against any of the popular careers below, firefighters make less money. However, medians can be misleading. Note that the typical nurse practitioner makes $103,000 per year according to the data but, even with overtime, NP’s don’t tend to make as much as the top-earning firefighters.

Comparing just the typical firefighter salary without overtime, firefighters don’t stack up well. A firefighter salary is 1/4 as big as a doctor, half as big as a layer and 30% smaller than a nurse. A police officer earns 22% more and a marketing manager earns three times as much. Even taking just the medians into consideration, most firefighters don’t regret their career choices. A more flexible schedule, adrenaline and notoriety are non-money perks that come with the job.

Firefighter Salary VS Other Jobs
JobSalaryFirefighter Salary Is...
Firefighter salary (median)$46,000
Doctor salary vs firefighter salary$187,2001/4 as big
Lawyer salary vs firefighter salary$114,970Half as big
Nurse salary vs firefighter salary$66,64030% smaller
Police officer salary vs firefighter salary$58,63022% smaller
Marketing manager salary vs firefighter salary$123,4501/3 as big
Dentist salary vs firefighter salary$154,6401/3 as big
Nurse practitioner salary vs firefighter salary$102,670Half as big
Software developer salary vs firefighter salary$97,990Half as big
Physical therapist salary vs firefighter salary$82,39044% smaller
Accountant salary vs firefighter salary$65,94030% smaller

Being a firefighter isn’t all about the pay, according to Sergeant Ben Evers from Ladder Company Four in the Washington D.C. Fire Department.

“Being a fireman is a lifestyle, not a job,” says Evers. “The brotherhood and satisfaction of helping people in their worst moments far outweighs any career perks.”

Also see: 5 Reasons to Publicly Share Your Salary

10 Cities with the Highest Firefighter Salary

Top cities firefighter salaryThe table below shows the top ten cities for highest firefighter salary. Oakland tops the charts with a median salary of $90,000, though some in that city earn as much as $400,000 per year with overtime. San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Santa Ana are other California cities that make the top ten list.

Non-California metro areas that also make the top firefighter salary list are Newark, New Jersey, New York City, Tacoma Washington and Trenton, New Jersey. Miami, Florida also makes the list. All in all, the top cities have average firefighter salaries between $75,000 and $90,000. Overtime can easily double or even triple those figures.

Firefighter salary by state

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For detailed, map-driven data on firefighter salary by state and county, check out the BLS salary page here.

10 Cities with the Highest Average Firefighter Salary
City RankCityAverage Firefighter SalaryNotes
1Oakland, CA$90,000In Oakland, a firefighter salary translates to $43.26 per hour.
2San Jose, CA$87,780There are 1,000 people earning a firefighter salary in San Jose.
3San Francisco, CA$87,480Three of every 1,000 people in the San Francisco metro area earns a firefighter salary.
4Los Angeles, CA$84,7207,000 people in LA earn a firefighter salary.
5Newark, NJ$83,090There are 36% less firefighters per capita in Newark than the national average.
6New York, NY$82,4109,060 people earn a firefighter salary in NYC. That's the most of any metro area in the country.
7Tacoma, WA$78,320There are 50% more firefighters per capita in Tacoma than the national average.
8Trenton, NJ$78,070There are only 510 people earning a firefighter salary in Trenton. That's the least in the top ten cities list.
9Miami, FL$76,000A firefighter salary in Miami translates to $36.54 per hour.
10Santa Ana, CA$75,640One out of every thousand people in Santa Ana earns a firefighter salary.

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10 States with the Lowest Firefighter Salary

States firefighter salaryThe state with the lowest typical firefighter pay is West Virginia, with a middle-of-the-road firefighter salary of $29,180. On 12/11/12, Firefighters earning that median pay battled a blaze started by a gas pipeline explosion that melted parts of Highway 77. The fire shut down the interstate for days and leveled several homes. The flames were so hot and so widespread they showed up on local doppler radar.

Other low-paying states are Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina and Arkansas. States not in the Southeast with low firefighter salary levels are Wisconsin and Minnesota. Fire departments in those states are mostly “volunteer” departments. Volunteer firefighters don’t tend to work for free, but they do make a lot less money than salaried employees.

10 States with the Lowest Firefighter Salary
State RankStateAverage Firefighter SalaryNotes
1West Virginia$29,180On 12/11/12, firefighters in WV battled a major gas main explosion that melted part of highway 77. The average firefighter salary for those working on the blaze was $29,000.
2Missouri$31,290On 10/24/15, firefighters battled a brush fire at a Missouri nuclear site. Average firefighter salary at the site was $31,000.
3North Carolina$32,170There are 1,083 fire departments in North Carolina, with 13,680 people earning an average firefighter salary of $32,000.
4Wisconsin$32,630Three of every 1,000 people in Wisconsin is a firefighter, earning an average salary of $33,000.
5Kentucky$32,64075% of all Kentucky firefighters are in volunteer departments. That helps push the average Kentucky firefighter salary there down to $33,000.
6Minnesota$32,890Only 2% of fire departments in Minnesota are listed as "career" depts. (vs "volunteer" departments). That accounts for the relatively low firefighter salary in the state.
7South Carolina$33,430In 2009, South Carolina had its worst wildland-urban mix fire. The fire burned 19,000 acres and 173 homes. Thanks to teams earning an average firefighter salary of $33,000, nobody was killed.
8New Mexico$33,510New Mexico has 244 fire departments with 1,600 employees earning an average firefighter salary of $55,000.
9Georgia$33,810Georgia has 11,000 firefighters. That's 20% more per capita than the national average. Those 11,000 people earn an average firefighter salary of $38,000
10Arkansas$33,830Since record keeping began in 1936, Arkansas has had up to 7,400 forest fires per year. Those fighting the blazes make a mean firefighter salary of $34,000.

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How to Save $4.4 Million on a Typical Firefighter Salary

save firefighter salaryIt’s possible to become a millionaire even on the relatively low typical firefighter salary of $45,970. The table below shows the math. Over a 40 year career, a firefighter earning that pay would make $1.8 million. Assuming the median family budget of $64,000, the firefighter’s cost of living is $2.5 million for those 40 years. With a spouse earning a comparable salary, the lifetime “extra” money is $1.1 million. Investing that at a conservative 6% as it’s earned gives a lifetime total nest egg of $4.4 million.

That’s assuming a lot. The calculation assumes salary levels don’t fluctuate. It assume a fixed budget and a spouse earning the same as the firefighter. It also assumes a fixed investment return of 6% with no major stock market crash. Even so, it’s clearly possible to retire quite comfortably on even the median firefighter salary.

Lifetime Firefighter Salary and Earnings
Number of years earning typical firefighter salary40
Typical firefighter salary$45,970
Lifetime earnings on firefighter salary$1,838,800
Typical annual family budget$64,000
Lifetime household cost of living$2,560,000
Lifetime savings (firefighter salary + similar spouse salary)$1,117,600
Lifetime savings with 6% investment income$4,406,000

Also see: How Much Money Do NFL Players Make?

Smokejumper Firefighter Salary

How much is a smokejumper salary? According to the Houston Chronicle, smokejumpers start out at around $30,000. They can earn as much as $45,000 a year, depending on location and seniority. They can also earn another 25% “hazard pay,” though that money isn’t guaranteed.

Smokejumper firefighter salary
Smokejumper starting salary$30,000
Top smokejumper salary$56,250

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Pension Spiking: The Firefighter Salary Retirement Boost

Some firefighters and other government employees use “pension spiking” or “salary spiking” to give their retirement income a big boost. The way it works is, employees inflate their firefighter salary in the years just before they retire by working as much over time as they can. The higher pay affects their pension calculation, ensuring higher retirement pay. A pension based on a $150,000 salary will be a lot bigger than one based on a $75,000 salary.

Certain states have passed laws to restrict pension spiking. Illinois has outlawed the practice. California passed a state law against pension spiking. However, 20 counties that set up their own retirement funds weren’t party to the law as of 2012.