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The Best-Paying U.S. Cities for First Responders in 2021

Between the COVID-19 pandemic, more intense hurricanes, and ongoing wildfires impacting the western U.S., first responders are being challenged more than ever. While first responders are on the front lines during emergencies and face more danger than most people do in their occupations, they don’t earn much more. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these workers earn an average annual wage of $60,292, or about $4,000 more than the average across all occupations.

First responders generally include emergency medical technicians (EMTs), paramedics, firefighters, and police officers. Among these occupations, police officers earn the most, on average, with an average annual wage of $70,000. Firefighters earn $56,360 per year, on average, while EMTs and paramedics earn just $40,370 annually. EMTs are often paid less for several reasons. For one, emergency medical services (EMS) departments are allocated just a fraction of the funds that police and fire departments receive. And, becoming a firefighter or police officer tends to require more training than becoming an EMT, which only involves around 150 hours for starting positions.

Chart1_Police officers earn the most among first responders

First responder pay varies not only by occupation but also by geographic location. At a regional level, first responders on the West Coast tend to earn the most, even after adjusting for above-average living costs. Despite living in one of the most expensive states in the country, California first responders still earn the highest cost-of-living adjusted wage, at nearly $79,000 per year. Firefighters who fight wildfires are in especially high demand in California and other parts of the Western U.S. At the other end of the spectrum, first responders in Mississippi earn just $41,377, on average, even after adjusting for the state’s low cost of living.

Chart2_First responders earn the most on the West Coast

To find the best-paying cities for first responders, researchers at Smartest Dollar analyzed the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The researchers ranked locations according to the cost-of-living adjusted annual wage for first responders. Researchers also included the actual average wage for first responders, the average wage for all workers, and the relative cost of living.

To improve relevance, only metropolitan areas with at least 100,000 people were included in the analysis. Here are the best-paying metros for first responders.

Chart3_Best-paying small and midsize metros for first responders

America’s Best-Paying Large Metros for First Responders

San Diego, CA

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15. San Diego-Chula Vista-Carlsbad, CA

  • Mean annual wage for first responders (adjusted): $64,720
  • Mean annual wage for first responders (actual): $76,305
  • Mean annual wage for all workers (actual): $64,300
  • Cost of living (compared to average): +17.9%
Grand Rapids, MI

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14. Grand Rapids-Kentwood, MI

  • Mean annual wage for first responders (adjusted): $64,728
  • Mean annual wage for first responders (actual): $59,550
  • Mean annual wage for all workers (actual): $49,700
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -8.0%
Buffalo, NY

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13. Buffalo-Cheektowaga, NY

  • Mean annual wage for first responders (adjusted): $65,736
  • Mean annual wage for first responders (actual): $62,120
  • Mean annual wage for all workers (actual): $53,300
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -5.5%
Austin, TX

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12. Austin-Round Rock-Georgetown, TX

  • Mean annual wage for first responders (adjusted): $69,759
  • Mean annual wage for first responders (actual): $69,271
  • Mean annual wage for all workers (actual): $57,830
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -0.7%
Denver, CO

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11. Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO

  • Mean annual wage for first responders (adjusted): $70,529
  • Mean annual wage for first responders (actual): $73,491
  • Mean annual wage for all workers (actual): $64,880
  • Cost of living (compared to average): +4.2%
Chicago, IL

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10. Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI

  • Mean annual wage for first responders (adjusted): $70,987
  • Mean annual wage for first responders (actual): $72,975
  • Mean annual wage for all workers (actual): $60,340
  • Cost of living (compared to average): +2.8%
Las Vegas, NV

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9. Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV

  • Mean annual wage for first responders (adjusted): $71,386
  • Mean annual wage for first responders (actual): $69,173
  • Mean annual wage for all workers (actual): $49,960
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -3.1%
Seattle, WA

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8. Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA

  • Mean annual wage for first responders (adjusted): $71,433
  • Mean annual wage for first responders (actual): $81,790
  • Mean annual wage for all workers (actual): $74,330
  • Cost of living (compared to average): +14.5%
Columbus, OH

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7. Columbus, OH

  • Mean annual wage for first responders (adjusted): $72,860
  • Mean annual wage for first responders (actual): $66,740
  • Mean annual wage for all workers (actual): $54,160
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -8.4%
Riverside, CA

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6. Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA

  • Mean annual wage for first responders (adjusted): $73,965
  • Mean annual wage for first responders (actual): $79,364
  • Mean annual wage for all workers (actual): $53,640
  • Cost of living (compared to average): +7.3%
Portland, OR

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5. Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA

  • Mean annual wage for first responders (adjusted): $74,611
  • Mean annual wage for first responders (actual): $78,342
  • Mean annual wage for all workers (actual): $61,860
  • Cost of living (compared to average): +5.0%
San Francisco, CA

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4. San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley, CA

  • Mean annual wage for first responders (adjusted): $78,392
  • Mean annual wage for first responders (actual): $105,437
  • Mean annual wage for all workers (actual): $81,840
  • Cost of living (compared to average): +34.5%
Sacramento, CA

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3. Sacramento-Roseville-Folsom, CA

  • Mean annual wage for first responders (adjusted): $79,940
  • Mean annual wage for first responders (actual): $84,097
  • Mean annual wage for all workers (actual): $62,820
  • Cost of living (compared to average): +5.2%
Los Angeles, CA

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2. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA

  • Mean annual wage for first responders (adjusted): $84,676
  • Mean annual wage for first responders (actual): $100,595
  • Mean annual wage for all workers (actual): $63,660
  • Cost of living (compared to average): +18.8%
San Jose, CA

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1. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA

  • Mean annual wage for first responders (adjusted): $95,589
  • Mean annual wage for first responders (actual): $121,111
  • Mean annual wage for all workers (actual): $93,450
  • Cost of living (compared to average): +26.7%

Detailed Findings & Methodology

Over half of the best-paying large metros for first responders are located on the West Coast. Even after adjusting for its high cost of living, the San Jose metro area pays its first responders the highest average annual wage in the country, at $95,589. Without adjusting for the cost of living, first responders earn $121,111 in San Jose, much higher than the average for all workers there ($93,450) and much higher than the national average for first responders ($60,292).

First responders face much more risk in their day-to-day jobs than most people and are often putting their lives on the line. However, average pay for first responders is only $4,000 higher than the average pay for all workers. And some first responders, such as EMTs, earn significantly lower-than-average wages. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the risks that first responders face. In response, several states have started hazard pay programs to boost pay to frontline essential workers, including first responders.

To find the best-paying metropolitan areas for first responders, researchers at Smartest Dollar analyzed the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2020 Occupational Employment Survey and cost of living data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s 2019 Regional Price Parity dataset. To make wages comparable across locations, wages in expensive metros were adjusted down to reflect lower purchasing power while wages in relatively affordable metros were adjusted up to reflect higher purchasing power.

The researchers ranked locations according to the cost-of-living adjusted, employment-weighted mean annual wage for first responders. First responders are defined as police and sheriff’s patrol officers, firefighters, and EMTs and paramedics. In the event of a tie, the metro with the higher actual mean annual wage for first responders was ranked higher. Researchers also calculated the mean annual wage for all workers and the cost of living (compared to average).

To improve relevance, only metropolitan areas with at least 100,000 people were included in the analysis. Additionally, metro areas were grouped into the following cohorts based on population size: 

  • Small metros: 100,000–349,999
  • Midsize metros: 350,000–999,999
  • Large metros: 1,000,000 or more