Reduce staffing or cut companies
Maybe I'm a little bit biased, but I can't believe how cavalier the city is discussing taking companies out of service.
Staffing shortfalls fuel fire dept. OT
City wants to curb costs, but firefighters say cutting service dangerous
By Sam Scott,
Published: Sunday, March 16, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 16, 2008 at 3:16 a.m.
Other firefighters don't call Carson Crazy Bear "Captain Overtime" for nothing.
Since the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1, the 17-year veteran of the Wilmington Fire Department has volunteered for more than 1,100 hours of overtime, earning $25,000 above his base pay.
"Everybody knows if nobody else takes it, I am going to take it," said Crazy Bear, a single guy who would rather be working than at home. "I love my job."
Fire department leaders are grateful for the service. Without the standbys who volunteer when others are out, the department would continually be pulling fire trucks out of service, Chief Sam Hill said.
But such reliance on overtime is turning the payroll budget fire-truck red.
For the past five years, the fire department has soared past its overtime budget and more than doubled it in 2006 and 2007. As of mid-February, the department was already $160,000 over its $292,000 allotment for the fiscal year ending June 30.
The issue is coming to an apparent head as the city council worries about tight times to come.
The city already faces a likely tax increase to make up for a county error in figuring this year's tax base.
"I want to see if there's a more efficient way of doing business," said Mayor Bill Saffo, who plans to tackle the matter at council's March 31 retreat. "We need to fix that problem."
In response, City Manager Sterling Cheatham is calling for a key change in how the department operates - capping overtime and taking some fire trucks out of service when their crews are not at full strength rather than automatically calling for backup.
For firefighters, the proposed cure is worse than the disease. Taking trucks out of service pokes holes in the city's fire protection, forcing the department to guess the impossible, the location of the next alarm, Hill said.
"I haven't found any hardware or any computer or any individual that can figure out where you're going to have a fire," Hill said.
At the root of the conflict is an 8-year-old city policy requiring most fire trucks to carry at least four firefighters, a magic number in firefighting. Unless lives are at stake, federal regulations say firefighters can't enter a burning building without a team of four - two to enter, two to be at the ready in case of rescue.
But how the four get there is an open question. Some cities, including Raleigh will run with three on a truck. New Hanover County Fire Services will go with two with other firefighters arriving on other vehicles. Wilmington's policy strives to assure the four arrive as quickly as possible, Assistant Chief Frank Jordan said.
The "four-on-a-truck" policy is recommended by the National Fire Protection Association, which writes suggested standards for firefighting.
"Wilmington is actually doing it right," said Tommie Styons, assistant chief in Raleigh, who said she wished Raleigh had a requirement of four.
But Jordan said the fire department has never had the staff to carry out the policy without having to rely on overtime.
Keeping four on a truck leaves little room for illness, injury, training or other absences, especially when the department has vacant positions, Jordan said.
If more than eight people are out on a 66-person shift, the department faces a choice - start paging off-duty firefighters to come in or take trucks out service.
Last year fire trucks were taken out of service 83 times for insufficient manning, a move of last resort, Jordan said.
More commonly, though, firefighters come back for overtime. Those who routinely volunteer like Crazy Bear can earn tens of thousands of dollars, but the average amount per firefighter last year was about $3,000.
'A perfect storm'
As a solution, the department needs more people, Jordan said. To get four firefighters on a truck, you really need to assign five people to each one.
"If you don't put five people on a truck, you're setting up to fail," he said.
But hiring the number of firefighters that department leaders suggest could top $1 million a year.
Officials like Cheatham prefer more economic options like strategically taking trucks out of service. Firefighters would still arrive in teams of four.
And the Wilmington-wide distribution of equipment would ensure that the department still has the resources to respond.
"How often do you have a perfect storm?" city budget director Scott Townsend said at a council retreat last month.
Chief Hill thinks opinions are going to vary depending on whose house is burning - the department already has its handful with simultaneous fires. And the firefighter's union opposes the change.
"Taking trucks out of service for me is not really an option," said Chuck Bower, vice president of the Wilmington Professional Firefighters Association. "That's what gets people killed."
A national problem
Similar issues are being replayed at fire departments across the country, said Mike Wieder, assistant director of International Fire Service Training Association at Oklahoma State University.
Bigger departments are accustomed to the strains of meeting minimum manning, he said.
But those with staffs in the 50- to 200-person range, which includes Wilmington, are generally newer to the game and many are struggling with the cost, he said.
His local department in Stillwater, Okla., is having a hard time keeping a minimum of three firefighters on a truck, after failing to add firefighters as the town grew, he said.
"It's a local decision on what your community can afford," Wieder said.
The topic is likely to loom large in the imminent hiring of a new fire chief.
Hill steps down next week after 20 years atop the department he joined 50 years ago. A nationwide search is on for his replacement, who is expected to be in place by this summer.
"One of the first questions I am going to ask the applicants for chief is, how you avoid this." Councilman Jim Quinn said. "Something ain't right here."
'Overhires' to rescue
Ironically, the overtime issue is heating up as payroll costs have taken their most significant drop in years.
Two months ago, the department paid for 2,900 hours of time-and-a-half overtime. Last month, it dropped to 260 hours, according to department figures.
The difference has been the arrival of an unusually large class of rookies who graduated in January.
Traditionally, the fire department has focused on filling vacancies with inexperienced applicants rather than certified firefighters, in large part as a way of meeting the city's diversity goals for race and gender.
Certified firefighters overwhelmingly tend to be white men, according to fire department leadership.
But the newcomers require 19 weeks of training before they're ready to go on calls, and the department doesn't want to go through the time and cost for less than eight to 10 people.
Waiting for enough vacancies to make a rookie school worth it only strains the manning problem further, Jordan said
This year, though, the city council approved seven "overhire" positions, which allowed the department to train 17 new hires, even though there were only 10 vacancies in the department.
The overhires get absorbed as standard employees as openings occur.
The change is noticeable, Crazy Bear said. For the past three years, he's been focused on taking all the overtime he can, in part to increase his benefits if he's injured on the job.
But his pager has recently stopped going off.
"It's just about completely dried up," Crazy Bear said.
Cheatham said the overhires are part of the answer, but as turnover again reduces the force, overtime issues will return.
There also needs to be more limits on overtime, he said. The status quo can't continue, he said.
"It is not acceptable," Cheatham said.
Sam Scott: 343-2370
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