Even Heroes Have Bills to Pay & Children to Feed
By Terry Golway, Irish Herald Sept. 2002
ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, the men and women of the Fire Department of New York became symbols of sacrifice, courage and selflessness in a new and terrible era of global terrorism. In the weeks and months after that awful day, New York and its suburbs bade farewell to 343 members of the FDNY, nearly half of them Irish-American. At the funerals and memorial services, politicians spoke to weeping family members and colleagues, assuring them that their father, son, brother, friend was a hero.

Those were wonderful sentiments. Anybody who has served as a firefighter or police officer knows just how fulsome politicians can be at the funerals of a hero. Whether in San Francisco or New York; Seattle or Santa Fe, firefighters and police officers are lionized when they die in the line of duty or perform an exceptional rescue.

When it comes time to actually pay these men and women a hero’s wage, however, politicians suddenly seem less generous than their speeches would indicate.

It’s hard to believe, but members of the heroic FDNY have been begging for a raise, to no avail, for months. The same with New York’s police, who lost nearly two-dozen members on September 11. Starting salaries for police and firefighters in New York are about $30,000 or so. Sure, the benefits are good: In the day of the 401(k), police and firefighters in New York actually have real, secure pensions, and they get overtime benefits.

But senior rank-and-file firefighters and cops top out at about $60,000 a year. That’s hardly a poverty wage, but in and around New York - one of the most-expensive areas in the nation, if not the world - 60 grand doesn’t get you much. Every firefighter I know, and as the son, son-in-law and godson of FDNY retirees, I know many, has a second job, sometimes even a third job. They need them to help pay the rent, the mortgage, the tuition, the car payments.

Firefighters and cops tend to be family men and women, people who aspire to home ownership, a piece of land to call their own, and an annual vacation with the kids. But in New York, those aspirations, modest though they are, seem almost impossible given the salaries they make. There really is a tradition of service in the FDNY, as all those Irish names among the dead on 9-11 demonstrated. But that service has to be rewarded in some small way; otherwise, people will look elsewhere.

The issue speaks to a much-wider concern, one that affects all of us. We know we are in a new era. We know now that there are wicked people capable of mass murder living among us. We rely on heroes - firefighters, cops and other first responders - to protect us.

But are we willing to pay for first-rate protection? And are we willing to pay for other kinds of security and protection? Or are we content to do homeland security on the cheap? As of this writing, President Bush is withholding $5 billion in spending on homeland security, arguing that the nation can’t afford these expenses. Those sentiments suggests that, for all the rhetoric, we don’t value the services of our heroic firefighters, cops and rescue workers. These men and women are our first line of defense in the world we entered on September 11, 2001. They are flattered to be looked upon as role models, but they can hardly be blamed if they point out that they have bills to pay.

Cities around the nation need to find money to make sure that firefighters and police are better-compensated for the new role they are playing. Higher salaries will attract good, talented people who have been inspired by the examples of the FDNY and other emergency services.

Mayors will say we can’t afford raises for such men and women. Imagine that: We can’t find money to pay heroes a decent wage. That’s not the way to fight a war on terrorism. That’s not a way to keep a city safe from the bad guys.


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