Fire Separation Allowance will aid in retaining, recruiting firefighters

The City of Mebane is going above and beyond to provide valuable long-term benefits for those men and women who have served the Mebane Fire Department for decades. In its budget discussions this spring, as the city plans its long-term capital expenditures, the City Council and other Mebane town officials have discussed bringing a fire separation allowance to Mebane, which will aid aging Mebane Fire Department firefighters in the years leading up to their being eligible to draw Social Security. 

The City of Mebane is going above and beyond to provide valuable long-term benefits for those men and women who have served the Mebane Fire Department for decades. 

In its budget discussions this spring, as the city plans its long-term capital expenditures, the City Council and other Mebane town officials have discussed bringing a fire separation allowance to Mebane, which will aid aging Mebane Fire Department firefighters in the years leading up to their being eligible to draw Social Security. 

The North Carolina State Firefighter’s Association has been working with the North Carolina General Assembly to enact a statewide bill identical to general statute 143-166.41, which provides similar separation allowances for law enforcement officials throughout North Carolina. 

The statewide fire separation allowance bill is not expected to pass the General Assembly this year. But cities such as Mebane can adopt their own local ordinances - and spend their own revenues - to provide these benefits for firefighters and other fire-related personnel. 

Mebane’s fire allowance plan is proposed to start in 2023. 

“This bill was passed for law enforcement in the late 1980s. The only reason it went through is because there was a sales tax bill passed at the same time,” Mebane City Council member Tim Bradley said at the elected body’s April budget workshop. “There was some assertion that they would provide the same to the firefighters the following year. Last year, it was introduced and passed in the House. But they couldn’t get it through the Senate, because it is an unfunded mandate.”

The fire separation allowance provides a bridge between retirement and Social Security for firefighters who have 30 years of firefighting service. Firefighters making $60,000 annually would receive $16,470 per year from the City of Mebane from the year of their retirement until age 62. 

In other words, a fireman who began with the Mebane Fire Department at the age of 25 could retire at age 55 and would be eligible for the fire separation allowance for approximately seven years, until age 62. 

“We’ve got the best benefit package in the state,” Mebane Fire Department Chief Bob Louis said to the City Council. “This will be an added benefit. What you all offer firefighters is astonishing compared to other municipalities.” 

In order to qualify for Mebane’s fire separation allowance, firefighters must be at least 50 years of age, have 30 years of firefighting service, and at least 10 years of service at the end of their careers, which must have been served consecutively with the Mebane Fire Department. This way, aging firefighters can’t come to Mebane for a year or two and receive the benefits entitled to the longer-serving firefighters. 

By including an age 50 minimum, the proposal guarantees that the longest amount of time any Mebane firefighter could receive the benefits would be 12 years - and that would only be in a scenario where someone joined the MFD or another fire agency at the age of 20. 

The fire separation allowance makes sense on numerous levels. It’s not just a matter of honoring men and women who have risked their lives to protect Mebane lives and Mebane property. 

It allows the Mebane Fire Department to continually ensure that able-bodied firefighters are going into buildings to retrieve residents and pets. 

It ensures that 50-something men and women with aching backs and sore knees are not the ones doing the heavy lifting onsite protecting the citizenry. Those firefighters can rightfully retire and move on with their lives, allowing younger men and women to step in and carry the torch. 

“If a police officer stops a criminal, and the criminal runs, they can’t take a break. They have to chase, and they have to chase until they catch the individual, or they get away,” Bradley said. “You can’t take a break when you want to (as a firefighter). If you have two fire calls in a day and there’s a third call, you can’t say after the first two, I’m done for the day. That's the reason we’ve been pushing it at the state level. We provide it to police officers. There should be a parity between all first responders.”

Critics of Bradley’s assertion that firefighters deserve parity with law enforcement will try to convince you that if you give these benefits to firefighters, eventually you’ll have to give them to all government employees. 

Simply put, this is an insult to our common sense. 

First of all, firefighters are not just “government employees,” as some would have you believe. 

Anyone that would put their own well-being on the line to protect me and my family, or you and your family - people they don’t know - is not just another “government employee.” 

Just as policemen receive extra retirement benefits and extra protections from the law in terms of stiffer penalties for crimes committed against them, firefighters who risk their lives for the people of Mebane deserve extra consideration when it comes to retirement benefits. 

“What’s the difference between police, fire, and other employees?” Bradley asked. “My response has always been if you’ve been doing something for 30 years, and you’re over 50 years old, do you really need to continue doing it?” 

Do I resent, or have a problem with, the notion that a 30-year Mebane Fire Department veteran will get a separation allowance to help him or her retire before me? 

In a word, no. 

Do I resent that I may have to work longer at my non life-threatening, mostly air-conditioned desk job, while paying extra taxes for a retired firefighter to walk away from his or her job sooner? 

In a word, no. 

Current estimates say we have roughly 15,000 to 16,000 residents living in Mebane, with that number growing rapidly each passing year. 

By that math, that means we would all have to come up with somewhere around one dollar to a dollar and a quarter apiece per year, per fireman, to fully fund Mebane’s fire separation allowance. 

Since most of us spend that daily on a soft drink at the convenience store, or on a pack of gum or bag of chips, how many reading this would not be willing to buy a fireman a free Coca Cola or snack at the local convenient store once a year? 

You see, that’s the thing that gets lost on some of these anti-government, anti-tax people that criticize Mebane’s approach to compensating its firefighters. 

None of us like higher taxes. But let’s get real here for a second. Mebane will not have to raise taxes to fund this relatively inexpensive allowance program. We’re not talking about some insufferable burden on the poor taxpayer. Right now, there are only a couple Mebane firefighters who are even eligible for the allowance. 

Even if there are 10 or 15, or even 20 retired Mebane Firefighters receiving this benefit in the decades to come, I’m happy to pay it. I’d take them all out to dinner if we could fit them into the same room and get enough food. I’m certainly happy to pay 10, or 20 or 50 dollars a year extra out of my pocket to provide Mebane’s best a prosperous retirement. 

This is not an over-the-top waste of government resources. Mebane can afford this, and will be able to afford it in the decades to come - especially as our tax base continues to grow annually. 

Along with its affordability, the proposed Mebane fire separation allowance benefits will assist the Mebane Fire Department in recruiting and retaining top-flight firefighters for many years to come, while also helping the City of Mebane set itself apart as a model of how local municipalities can successfully attract firefighting talent.

People who are anti-government expenditures at all costs will never understand that by providing employees benefits such as a separation allowance, you wind up actually saving money in the long run. That’s because you don’t have a revolving door of unhappy employees constantly leaving. You don’t have to spend untold thousands of additional dollars over the decades in recruiting, training, and re-hiring people for the same job over and over. 

In Mebane, firefighters come and they stay. There aren’t many job openings, because jobs don’t often come open. Mebane Fire Department officials know they’re being well taken care of, and they don’t leave on a regular basis. 

In turn, those jobs that do pop up are highly valued, and the Mebane Fire Department typically gets to choose from a wide pool of well-qualified candidates. 

This is what you want in a growing town like Mebane. You don’t want to go backwards. 

As for the argument that not everybody gets this benefit - that the average Joe has to go out and earn a living and doesn’t get a guaranteed allowance from his or her employer that allows them to retire before their 60s - I say simply this. 

Does the average Joe have to run into a burning building in his job? 

Does the average Joe have to risk his life and his or her own health to protect the lives and properties of complete strangers? 

Does the average Joe go out of his way on a daily basis to help citizens, promote local safety, and improve the quality of life in Mebane?

While I can’t know for sure, anyone who would be adamantly opposed for firefighters to receive these benefits - whether it’s based on tax expenditures or whatever else - probably hasn’t been directly touched by a fire. And if they have been, they must have a very short memory of what that particular experience was like. 

For me, that morning was December 1, 2003. I remember it vividly because it’s not that difficult a date to forget, but also because it’s a morning that’s seared into my recollection. 

I remember being woken from a deep sleep in my Chapel Hill apartment by the faint sound of “Fire!”, and then waking up completely when my neighbor banged on our door and yelled that our entire building was ablaze. 

The unit beside ours in our four-unit condominium complex had caught fire when the shaft in the resident’s chimney sparked and lit up. 

All I had time to do was run back upstairs to my roommate’s bedroom and awake his soon-to-be fiancee and eventual wife, telling her there was a fire and we had to evacuate immediately. My roommate had an early flight that morning to California, and had left approximately 30 minutes before the fire started. He wouldn’t find out about the fire until he was on the other side of the continent. My roommate’s girlfriend and I were the only two people in our unit at the time.  

I remember sitting on the sidewalk, about fifty feet away from my bedroom, watching my building burning. I kept watching the flames, engulfing my neighbor’s unit, waiting to see when they’d eventually make it through the wall and into my room. I kept looking into the vent leading into my room, waiting to see the ubiquitous black smoke billowing out that ensured my possessions were being burnt up. 

But thanks to the mercy of God - and a group of dedicated and professional Chapel Hill firefighters - it turned out that my unit was spared. 

By a matter of mere feet, the firefighters had managed to stop the blaze just short of the wall separating the two units. Though there was some minor smoke issues that were worked out with a few trips to the laundromat, I didn’t lose a single thing of value. 

I was one of the lucky ones. But tragically, two of my adjacent neighbors lost almost everything. 

I’ll never forget seeing the despair in their eyes that morning as they stood outside, knowing that much of what they had lived, paid, and worked for over the course of many years had vanished in the blink of an eye. 

No, I don’t have one bit of a problem with Mebane’s proposed fire separation allowance. 

And fortunately, to the benefit of the Mebane Fire Department and local citizens, our elected officials don’t have a problem with it either. 

“I think anything we need to do to get good people, we need to do,” City Council member Everette Greene said. 

“I think it’s a valid program that will benefit people who have served our city very well,” added fellow City Council member Patty Philipps.