Advocates for Tulsa’s firefighters urge action as low salaries lead to shortages

by Nate Morris
tulsa firefighter

It has been more than 15 years since Tulsa’s firefighters saw a significant increase in their salaries, and the city has shown no indication that will change soon.

Through devastating wildfires seasons, economic recessions and now a raging pandemic, Tulsa’s career firefighters have remained on the front lines. Now, their representatives are sounding the alarm that continued inadequate funding will make keeping fire houses fully staffed increasingly difficult. 

Matthew Lay, the president of the Tulsa Fire Department’s IAFF Union spoke passionately about his firefighters in an interview with The Black Wall Street Times last week.

“It’s been a running joke that Tulsa firefighters are kind of like your Swiss Army knife,” Lay said. “If you have a problem, you call the fire department. Even if it’s not an issue that’s in our wheelhouse, we will work to fix it.”

Each year, Tulsa firefighters answer more than 60,000 calls requiring a full spectrum of services. They repond, not only to fires, but to calls for mental health support, disasters, accidents, medical emergencies and more.

Sub-standard salaries hindering recruitment and retention for Tulsa’s “gold standard” fire department

For Lay and for firefighters across Tulsa, this commitment to excellence is what makes the department stand out. But this organization of first responders, recognized as one of the region’s best, isn’t seeing their pay match their work.

Career firefighters in Tulsa make, on average, just $0.80 on the dollar compared to similar size departments elsewhere. Even in Oklahoma, pay for the first responders who protect 400,000 people every day ranks 16th overall in the state. All of this, Lay says, makes it harder for the department to recruit and retain talent.

The department has seen a 90% reduction in applications over the last fifteen years. Recruitment Officer Anthony Payne recently told Tulsa City Councilors that TFD could be short as many as 70 firefighters by year’s end.

tulsa firefighter

City of Tulsa photo

Pay raise offer ‘not currently on the table’ for Tulsa firefighters

Recently, Mayor Bynum announced a significant increase in pay for Tulsa Police officers. The pay bump would increase the starting salary of an officer to nearly $58,000 – a nearly $9,000 increase. The raise also includes a $3,000 signing bonus and an increase on salary cap for seasonal officers. While many across the city praised the salary increase, the question on many Tulsans’ minds remained: “what about our firefighters?”

Lay  wouldn’t go into much detail about the fire department’s ongoing collective bargaining process with the city. However, when asked if Tulsa is proposing similar raises for TFD, he did say “no such offer is on the table for firefighters.” The department, he said, hasn’t seen a “significant” pay increase from the City of Tulsa (above 1-2%) since 2006.

According to Lay, the current starting salary for a first-year firefighter is just north of $40,000. While Tulsa firefighters do receive a raise each year, those pay step increases max out after ten years. Tulsa firefighters also don’t receive annual performance-based raises, something Lay says is unique to Tulsa. Over the years, all of this has combined to make recruiting high-quality candidates more and more of a challenge.

“One of the things that our firefighters fear the most is a degradation in the level of service,” he said. “For more than 100 years, Tulsa has been the gold standard when it comes to fire protection, health care and level of service.”

Lay says the department prides itself on having the highest standards in who they hire, “not just on a resume, but in work ethic and values”. But now, those “gold standard” recruits are starting to go to other departments with higher pay and better benefits.

Firefighters work to preserve level of service to Tulsans in the most difficult of times

This decline comes as the stressors of a seemingly endless pandemic continue to weigh on first responders. When Lay spoke with The BWSTimes, at least 17 firefighters were battling COVID and two were in the hospital. 

“This remains a very real threat to the health and safety of firefighters in Tulsa,” Lay said.

At the city council meeting last week, proponents of a mask mandate urged the council to act, in part, to protect first responders like the city’s firefighters who consistently put themselves at risk to protect others.

“Over the pandemic, the one constant is that a firefighter was going to respond to that call,” Lay said. “They were going to come place themselves in the path of a dangerous virus to protect you and your family.”

As the pandemic rages on, mental health issues increase, crime rises and the region moves toward fire season, calls from the public mount on the Bynum administration to negotiate similar salary increases for Tulsa’s firefighters.

“We want the gold standard of service the Tulsa Fire Department is known for to continue,” Lay said. “There is a limit to that if you don’t keep up with pay.”

How to join Tulsa’s fire department

Anyone interested in joining the Tulsa Fire Department can click here to learn more or reach out directly to the department’s recruitment officer, Anthony Payne, by emailing anthony.payne@cityoftulsa.org.

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