One Town’s Experience
It’s not hard to find someone making the argument that fire and police professionals die at younger ages than the general population. In the realm of pension policy, it makes sense to consider this possibility for benefit design (disability and survivor pensions) and overall cost, as well as policies that could reduce or eliminate this risk.
Intuitively it makes sense that there would be a shorter life span for fire and police personnel, given the physical and mental stresses of the job. Indeed, validated analysis shows an increased cancer-risk for firefighters. But it is also true that compared to the entire population, police and fire personnel begin their careers in better physical shape, have good health insurance, and have median or above median incomes. All of these factors support better health and longer lives.
Publicly Available Data
A thorough data search will not find credible research that proves or disproves the shorter life expectancy theory. There have been studies by two large statewide pension systems—Oregon and California—that showed that the life expectancies of public safety employees and retirees are the same as their general employee populations (highway workers, building inspectors, etc.). But this analysis excluded large urban systems such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Portland. These cities are not in the statewide pension plans (they have their own municipal pension funds). With the big cities and some urban counties out of the studies, I’m suspicious about any conclusion that the life expectancies of public safety and general employees are the same.
Could Our Own Skokie Data Provide Guidance?
As a police pension trustee in Skokie, it occurred to me that perhaps a review of the Village’s data might be helpful. As it turned out, Skokie’s leadership was equally interested in this subject and was very willing to help, as were the presidents of the fire and police pension boards. The data is small and I am not an actuary, but it made sense to see if the theory about shorter life expectancy was supported or refuted, from a layman’s view, by an examination of our own Skokie pensioners and survivors.
The information that follows shows what was found, along with my personal conclusion. In summary, I believe there is validity to the idea that police and fire professionals don’t live as long as the rest of us.
Skokie Retiree Data Analysis
Two sets of data were reviewed. The first was the average and median age (half above—half below) of retirees in the Skokie police and fire systems and those retirees in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF) who had earned civilian service in Skokie. The IMRF covers the Village’s administrative, inspection and public works employees. Because the fire and police retirees are almost all male, the data analysis was limited to male retirees (at the time of the analysis there were only three female police and no female fire retirees). Also, since the Tier I normal retirement age for IMRF is 60, the review of retirees from all pension systems was limited to those age 60 and over.
Limiting the group examined to retirees age 60 and above could produce what statisticians call a “survivorship bias” (e.g., a police retiree who died at age 52 would not be included). So I also examined the age-at-death of all deceased male active and retired police, fire, and IMRF members whose wives were receiving a survivor pension in September 2014. While this September 2014 “snapshot” limited the review of age-at-death to persons whose wives were receiving pensions on that date, it was really the only tool available. There is not a good source of data on every person who has ever served in Skokie government and is now deceased.
What the Skokie Data Showed
The data received and analyzed shows the following:
It is noted that the median ages in all cases were similar to average ages, supporting that the data was fairly even around the averages with limited “outliers” to distort the observations.
What the Skokie Data Means
The average ages of male police, fire, and IMRF retirees age 60 and over were 71.5, 72.7 and 73.4 respectively. Even with a survivor bias caused by not including retirees under age 60, the general employee retiree population was almost one year older than fire retirees and two years older than police.
The age-at-death of the Village employee/retiree who had a surviving wife on the September 2014 pension roles was much more contrasting. The deceased police member died at 63.6 on average, fire at 67.3, and the IMRF member at 73.9. Though the number for analysis was small and this limits the validity of any conclusion (there are only 19 police survivors on the September, 2014 roles), the fire age-at-death was six (6) years younger than the IMRF group, and the police group was a somewhat startling ten (10) years younger than general service employees.
This review was not an actuarial study and had data limitations. There were only 97 total widows in all three pension categories combined. Also, remember that an employee in IMRF can be hired at a much older age than police or fire. Maybe the entire cohort of general service employees and retirees is simply older than the public safety group? But I came away from this exercise concluding that there is perhaps validity to the early-death theory for fire and police.
When we observe the retiree group at IMRF on average being older than the police and fire subsets, it is probably because they are living longer than those with public safety careers. When we see the age-at-death of active and retired members being oldest for the IMRF group, a conclusion can be reached that the fire and police employee/retirees died at a younger age on average. The differences seen in the age-at-death were larger than I expected: six years younger for fire and ten years younger for police when compared to the Skokie general municipal employee group in IMRF.
Does this mean anything from a pension funding perspective?
Life expectancy tables are updated by the Village’s actuary to reflect life expectancy in the total population. This little statistical analysis is certainly not a reason to cease using a general population table for the police and fire groups. If the public safety members do in fact live a shorter time, there will be slightly more money put into the pension funds initially but it can later be cut back if the actuary observes an actuarial gain from public safety retirees dying earlier than expected. In the meantime, all tax revenue and employee contributions produce investment earnings that improve the financial stability of the pension funds.
Whether or not there are shorter life expectancies for public safety workers appears to be irrelevant for pension funding purposes in Skokie or any one jurisdiction.
Pension funding aside, all stakeholders should continue to be concerned about any life expectancy gap. Given the nature of the job, it is inconceivable that this gap can be eliminated but it is certainly hopeful that it could be narrowed. As far as public policy to potentially address this, the police and fire professional and labor groups have been diligent in identifying methods and processes to reduce job and life risk. Their recommendations should be appreciated and considered by the public officials and the citizenry at large. A white paper from the Firefighters Cancer Support Network particularly details procedural changes to assist in disease prevention.
As far as the individual employee is concerned, if I am not an actuary, I am even less a physician or public health expert. But I can’t see any reason why the same practices for improving health and life expectancy for the overall population would not have value, even in the face of the increased risk for the police and fire population: a strong relationship with a primary care doctor, age and gender appropriate screening tests, smoking cessation, physical activity to suggested levels and stress reduction.
Data collection included several steps. The data on existing fire and police retirees, including the date of death of the employee/pensioner whose wife was on the pension roles in September 2014, was provided by Lauterbach & Amen LLP. A listing of IMRF pensioners with Skokie service was obtained by Village Hall from IMRF. The IMRF list of survivors included the member’s name but no date of death. I didn’t recognize every name but got an assist from former finance department associate, Judy Halteman. I then set out on a search of published obituaries to determine the age at death of each of these individuals. The Internet is an amazing tool; I hit 100% in finding the obituary of each deceased Skokie IMRF member.
The review of active pensioners brought some smiles as I had great memories of working with these gentlemen. The review of the decedents also brought back fond memories of many individuals who helped me greatly in the early years of my career: Village manager Jack Matzer; attorneys Harvey Schwartz and Dick Salzman; Vinnie Mastandrea and Dick Davis at fire and Roger Milz at police. There were certainly others, but their wives are most likely gone also so I did not see the family name on the pension roles.
Daniel W. Ryan is a guest columnist for the IL FOP Labor Council. He provides instruction on a myriad of topics including Illinois public sector pensions, deferred compensation, and social security. He is a trustee of the Skokie Police Pension Fund. He is a retired municipal finance director and union benefits plan administrator and is currently a project coordinator for the Illinois Public Pension Fund Association (IPPFA). This article is excerpted from his book, Retirement Income for Illinois Fire and Police: Pensions, Social Security and Deferred Compensation. It is available from Amazon.com.