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 salary||West Virginia ($29,180)|
|City with the highest average firefighter salary||Oakland, CA ($90,000)|
|Typical firefighter salary vs typical doctor salary||1/4 as big|
|Typical smokejumper firefighter salary in the U.S.||$43,125|
|How some firefighters retire rich with a huge pension firefighter salary||With "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 year||5% (that's average growth for a career)|
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Top Firefighter Salaries
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 Salary||Name||Job Title|
|$393,430||James Vannucchi||Firefighter, Battalion Chief|
|$343,730||Gary Altenberg||Firefighter, Lieutenant|
|$338,751||Brendan Ward||Firefighter, Battalion Chief|
|$334,190||Samson Lai||Firefighter, Battalion Chief|
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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
|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
How 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
|Job||Salary||Firefighter Salary Is...|
|Firefighter salary (median)||$46,000|
|Doctor salary vs firefighter salary||$187,200||1/4 as big|
|Lawyer salary vs firefighter salary||$114,970||Half as big|
|Nurse salary vs firefighter salary||$66,640||30% smaller|
|Police officer salary vs firefighter salary||$58,630||22% smaller|
|Marketing manager salary vs firefighter salary||$123,450||1/3 as big|
|Dentist salary vs firefighter salary||$154,640||1/3 as big|
|Nurse practitioner salary vs firefighter salary||$102,670||Half as big|
|Software developer salary vs firefighter salary||$97,990||Half as big|
|Physical therapist salary vs firefighter salary||$82,390||44% smaller|
|Accountant salary vs firefighter salary||$65,940||30% 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
The 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.
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 Rank||City||Average Firefighter Salary||Notes|
|1||Oakland, CA||$90,000||In Oakland, a firefighter salary translates to $43.26 per hour.|
|2||San Jose, CA||$87,780||There are 1,000 people earning a firefighter salary in San Jose.|
|3||San Francisco, CA||$87,480||Three of every 1,000 people in the San Francisco metro area earns a firefighter salary.|
|4||Los Angeles, CA||$84,720||7,000 people in LA earn a firefighter salary.|
|5||Newark, NJ||$83,090||There are 36% less firefighters per capita in Newark than the national average.|
|6||New York, NY||$82,410||9,060 people earn a firefighter salary in NYC. That's the most of any metro area in the country.|
|7||Tacoma, WA||$78,320||There are 50% more firefighters per capita in Tacoma than the national average.|
|8||Trenton, NJ||$78,070||There are only 510 people earning a firefighter salary in Trenton. That's the least in the top ten cities list.|
|9||Miami, FL||$76,000||A firefighter salary in Miami translates to $36.54 per hour.|
|10||Santa Ana, CA||$75,640||One out of every thousand people in Santa Ana earns a firefighter salary.|
10 States with the Lowest Firefighter Salary
The 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 Rank||State||Average Firefighter Salary||Notes|
|1||West Virginia||$29,180||On 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.|
|2||Missouri||$31,290||On 10/24/15, firefighters battled a brush fire at a Missouri nuclear site. Average firefighter salary at the site was $31,000.|
|3||North Carolina||$32,170||There are 1,083 fire departments in North Carolina, with 13,680 people earning an average firefighter salary of $32,000.|
|4||Wisconsin||$32,630||Three of every 1,000 people in Wisconsin is a firefighter, earning an average salary of $33,000.|
|5||Kentucky||$32,640||75% of all Kentucky firefighters are in volunteer departments. That helps push the average Kentucky firefighter salary there down to $33,000.|
|6||Minnesota||$32,890||Only 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.|
|7||South Carolina||$33,430||In 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.|
|8||New Mexico||$33,510||New Mexico has 244 fire departments with 1,600 employees earning an average firefighter salary of $55,000.|
|9||Georgia||$33,810||Georgia 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|
|10||Arkansas||$33,830||Since 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.|
How to Save $4.4 Million on a Typical Firefighter Salary
It’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 salary||40|
|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|
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.