The Firefighter's Pension System

 

The only open Contributory System. There is no required employer contribution, only an employee contribution, thus Contributory. The employer may contribute on the employee's behalf. The main reason that there is no longer an employer contribution is because as changes have been made to the Retirement System in the past, there have been contribution increases to the employees that far exceeded the actual costs of the changes. The law requires that reductions occur to the employer's contribution rate. A second reason is that Firefighters tend to pass away at much younger ages than retirees in other occupations. Another reason that there have been reductions to contributions is because our system also provides benefits for volunteer firefighters. There is little or no compensation for volunteers, so one half the tax on fire insurance premiums and some life insurance premiums has been designated to help off set the benefit costs. Fortunately at this time the tax exceeds the actual needs of the volunteers, although one major incident could change this. Volunteers who are disabled or killed in the line of duty qualify for the same benefit that the least compensated Firefighters from major Utah Fire Departments have. The other half of the tax is designated for Firefighter training. 

 

In part due to the yearly review and possible changes to the Retirement System, there is constant scrutiny and legislative action that affects costs and benefits. Firefighters are constantly working to maintain the current level of benefits. The main mechanism available to us the Joint Council of Fire Service Organizations. This way we can have a united and organized voice that is already recognized by the Legislature.

 

The Firefighters have a representative who is elected to advise the Retirement Board on pension matters. To make sure that this person (at this time it is Marty Peterson of Salt Lake City Fire) actually best represents the interests of the entire Fire Service and retirees, the person reports to the Fire Council.

 

For more information on the Pension Systems try www.urs.org.

 

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The Utah Firefighter's Basic Guide to the Firefighters Retirement System

By Marty Peterson, Firefighter Representative to the Pension Membership Council and Vice Chair of the Joint Council of Fire Service Organizations

 

One of the most important benefits available to Utah's professional firefighters is the retirement program. It can also be one of the most misunderstood by those within and outside of the fire service community.

Although the structure and workings of the system that manages retirement benefits for firefighters can be complex, most of it can be explained quite simply. The following is intended to educate firefighters and those outside the system on some of the fundamentals and to provide some resources for further information.

 

The FRS and URS

 

Except for a handful of cases, all professional firefighters in Utah belong to the Firefighters Retirement System (FRS). The FRS is one of six systems managed by the Utah Retirement System (URS). In addition to the FRS, the other retirement systems in the URS are: 

  • The Public Employees Contributory System (state and public education employees)

  • The Public Employees Noncontributory System (same as above)

  • The Public Safety Retirement System (police officers)

  • The Judges Retirement System

  • The Governors and Legislators Retirement System.

 

The URS is a state system empowered by Title 49 of the Utah Code, the "Utah State Retirement and Insurance Benefit Act." The mission statement of the URS reads: "…to provide financially sound retirement and 401(k)/457 investment benefits, as well as comprehensive health and dental, disability, and life insurance benefits to active and retired Utah public employees and their beneficiaries in a courteous, timely, and professional manner." 
All retirement systems in the URS are defined benefit plans, meaning that a set benefit is paid on retirement that is figured on factors such as years of service and salary. Contribution amounts and benefits in each system may be determined independently of the others.

 

 

URS Management

The URS is governed by the Utah State Retirement Board. The Pension Membership Council (PMC) serves in an advisory capacity to the Retirement Board and consists of representatives from all of the systems in the URS. Marty Peterson of Salt Lake City Fire Department Local 1645 and the Professional Firefighters of Utah is the PMC Representative for Utah's firefighters.

 

Difference Between Contributory and Noncontributory System

 

The URS includes two different types of systems, Contributory and Noncontributory. In a Contributory System, covered employees pay the required contributions for their retirement benefit out of their own paycheck. In a Non-Contributory System, there is only an employer contribution.

Currently, the only Contributory System open to new employees is the FRS. Other URS systems may cover certain incumbent employees under a Contributory System, but will only accept new employees into a Noncontributory System. This means that Utah's professional firefighters are some of the few public employees in the state who contribute directly to their retirement system rather than the employer paying their contributions. 

 

The law allows the pension contributions of Utah's professional firefighters to be paid by their employers, which causes some confusion about the contributory/noncontributory status of the FRS. These arrangements have been made in lieu of negotiated pay raises and are, in actuality, contributions paid on behalf of the employee. A firefighter pays taxes when the benefit is received, either as a pension or if he/she leaves the system prior to qualifying for a pension and receives a cash refund on contributions to date.

 

FRS Membership

 

According to 2002 URS statistics, the FRS provides retirement benefits to approximately 1,600 active professional Utah firefighters and nearly 900 retirees and surviving spouses. It also provides firefighting-related death and disability benefits to approximately 5,000 volunteer Utah firefighters. A volunteer who is disabled or killed in the line of duty qualifies for the same benefit that the lowest paid firefighters from major Utah fire departments would receive.

 

How the FRS is Funded

 

Currently, the FRS receives contributions from professional firefighters and funding from a tax on fire insurance premiums and some life insurance policies. Since volunteers receive little or no compensation for their work, 50 percent of this fire/life insurance tax is designated to help offset the costs of their death and disability benefits. (25 percent of this tax is designated for statewide firefighter training and the other 25 percent goes into the general fund.) No funding is provided from the state's General Fund or any other state source. The staffing and administrative costs of the system are supported by the contributions to the system.

 

In past years, employers of Utah's professional firefighters made a contribution to the FRS for each employed firefighter. The FRS no longer requires contributions from employers because the FRS is in sound financial shape. A few of the reasons for this financial soundness include:

  • Past increases in employee contributions to fund changes made to retirement benefits have far exceeded the actual costs of the changes made. When the system becomes overfunded the law requires reductions in the employer's contribution rate. 

  • Firefighters tend to spend less time in retirement and die at younger ages than retirees in other ccupations, resulting in a shorter time that benefits are paid. 

  • At this time the funding from the fire/life insurance tax exceeds the actual needs of the system, although one incident involving a few of the state's thousands of volunteers could change this.

 

The Work Never Stops 

 

In part due to yearly reviews of the FRS, there is constant scrutiny and a potential for legislative action each year that affects costs and benefits. Utah firefighters must work year-round just to maintain the status quo.

An important fire service organization that works at the legislative level is the Joint Council of Fire Service Organizations, or Joint Council. This organization provides a united and organized voice to a number of diverse fire service organizations, and is already recognized by the Legislature. The Joint Council holds regular meetings during the year and meets more frequently during the legislative session. To make sure PMC Representative Peterson represents the interests of Utah's fire service, he reports regularly to the Joint Council. Organizations such as the Joint Council and Professional Fire Fighters of Utah monitor the legislature closely and, when necessary, act in the interests of firefighters.

There is also potential on the national level for changes that can affect the FRS, particularly as legislators and administrators search for alternate funding sources for Social Security. In Washington D.C., the International Association of Fire Fighters maintains a high profile in these issues and other matters that affect Utah's firefighters.

 

How You Can Help


Nearly every Utah firefighter, professional or volunteer, is affected by what happens with the Firefighters Retirement System, and the legislature is where most major changes to the system happen. How can you help the people who are at the legislature working for your future? Here are a few suggestions.

 

  • Support your union local and other organizations that participate in the Joint Council.

  • Communicate with your leadership. Let them know what you would like to see happen or that you support what they are doing. Ask how you can help.

  • Find out which legislation affects firefighters, get educated on the facts and follow the progress in the legislature.

  • WRITE or CALL your senator or representative and express your opinion. It takes very little time and effort, and the impact it can have is surprising.

  • If the time comes to stand up and be counted at the capitol, make an effort to participate.

 

More Information

 

Information on the Utah Retirement System:
www.urs.org

 

Brochure on Firefighters Retirement System highlights:
www.urs.org/dbplans/highlight/firefighter.html

 

Professional Fire Fighters of Utah:
www.pffu.org

 

Utah Code, Title 49, Utah State Retirement and Insurance Benefit Act:
www.le.state.ut.us/~code/TITLE49/TITLE49.htm

 

Utah Code, Title 49, Chapter 16, Firefighters' Retirement Act:
www.le.state.ut.us/~code/TITLE49/49_06.htm

(C) 2016 Joint Council of Fire Service Organizations

The Joint Council of Fire Service Organizations meeting is scheduled for January 16, 2020 at 9:00am, at the Cannon Health Building, Conference Room 129.