Firefighters burn through overtime

Extra pay sends salaries soaring; some say it’s cheaper than making new hires, while others call for change

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photoFire District 3 firefighter intern Zach Uskoski, 19, details an engine Thursday in preparation for an upcoming open house. Fire District 3, which covers Hockinson, Brush Prairie, Heisson, Crawford and Venersborg, has no minimum staffing requirement and thus less overtime than its urban counterparts.

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Overtime not the only way for employees to pad paychecks

In Vancouver, a fire department battalion chief made more than the city manager last year. In Washougal, four fire department employees pulled down more than the fire chief.

A look at Clark County's highest-compensated employees in 2010 showed that it can pay to be a local firefighter.

Exactly 50 local fire employees — including chiefs, their assistants, captains and even some rank-and-file firefighters — made more than $100,000 last year. Most cleared that mark through tens of thousands of dollars of overtime pay.

Compensation for fire battalion chiefs and captains in particular, positions that have a lot of overtime and reflect years of experience, often surpassed salaries of department directors and top municipal officials.

Not every fire department in the county had astronomical overtime payouts, but those that did shared a few common threads: required minimum staffing levels, training hours and simply being short-handed.

Most Clark County fire departments rely on a minimum staffing model, meaning a set amount of firefighters at each rank must be on duty at all times. It’s a model that chiefs said is both union-negotiated and essential for safety. For that reason, many chiefs said they consider overtime a line item on their budgets — and that it’s still cheaper than paying the salary and benefits for more captains, chiefs and firefighters.

But others said that it’s time to look at ways to change the way staffing is structured to cut back on those extra hours.

“The minimum staffing model, we’re almost at the mercy of that,” Vancouver Fire Chief Joe Molina said. “We have to fill 37 seats a day no matter what. Every station has to be filled no matter what, regardless of the costs.”

As the next rounds of union negotiations begin, minimum staffing will have to be part of the conversation, he said.

When a department is short-staffed, fire personnel can volunteer (or are called in) to fill lengthy shifts, racking up overtime. Working those extra 24-or 48-hour long shifts is wearing on the staff — and some are more willing to take on the time than others.

Vancouver’s highest-paid employee, Battalion Chief Kevin Griffee, earned $165,069, including $47,313 in overtime — the most OT in the county. Like several of Clark County’s top overtime earners, a large portion of that extra pay — in Griffee’s case more than $20,000 — was reimbursed by the state for wildfire fighting. His gross pay was more than City Manager Eric Holmes’ salary of $161,499 (Holmes, who was named city manager in November, actually made $135,473 in 2010).

For Washington firefighters approaching retirement, there’s an added incentive: Overtime counts toward firefighters’ and police officers’ pension.

State law says that a public safety officer’s pension (for those who started after 1977) is based on years of service and their average monthly income in their five highest years of pay. It’s a law that doesn’t apply to other public employees, and is also non-negotiable.

“It’s basically to their advantage to get paid as much as possible,” Molina said. “The only way they have to increase (their salaries) is by overtime.”

Police also incur overtime as part of their daily work, but it’s largely driven by investigations, emergencies and backfilling for leave and sickness. Overtime can also creep up as department sizes shrink.

But minimum staffing isn’t a part of the police union contract, so if an officer calls in sick or is on leave, a patrol captain or sergeant can make the decision whether to call someone in on overtime, Vancouver Assistant Police Chief Chris Sutter said. That can also mean that during some shifts, a particular area has fewer officers on patrol.

“We do our best to provide the staffing we need to take care of our patrolling functions, but we don’t adhere to a strict minimum staffing,” Sutter said.

Still, several fire chiefs said that overtime is a reality.

Washougal Fire Chief Ron Schumacher said his department is “awfully lean,” and that some employees serve in both their normal jobs and as training officers.

Add in a year that included several long-term injuries and illnesses, and 2010 saw four of Schumacher’s underlings earn more than his salary of $93,058.

“I know it doesn’t look good on the public side, but we’re being more financially prudent with city funds,” Schumacher said. “I feel comfortable in saying by having firefighters work some overtime, the city is saving money by not going out and hiring a bunch of firefighters.”

A planned temporary consolidation of Camas and Washougal fire departments should also cut overtime and lead to other efficiencies, he said.

The top 20 highest-paid employees of Fire District 6 made overtime that ranged from $34,729 (a captain) to $12,261 (also a captain.)

Chief Jerry Green — whose district serves Hazel Dell, Felida Salmon Creek and Lake Shore — said he’s cut his total training budget by 54 percent and has stopped paying for all outside training for personnel development.

But the overtime associated with keeping 12 people on duty at all times is “pretty much a reality of doing business,” Green said. Minimum staffing is union-negotiated, but is also necessary for safety, he said.

@NormalParagraphStyle:But much smaller Fire District 3, which covers Hockinson, Brush Prairie, Heisson, Crawford and Venersborg, doesn’t have any requirements on staffing, and it’s top brass say there’s been no negative effects on emergency coverage.

Instead, Assistant Chief Donavon Mattern said Fire District 3 has looked at its statistics and created a deployment model that calls for higher staffing during times when fires and medical emergencies are the most likely to happen.

The most overtime earned in Fire District 3 in 2010 was $7,842, by a firefighter/paramedic.

“We work through how we’re going to best manage our citizen’s funds,” Mattern said. “We’re there for them, we want to spend their money wisely. We do it without sacrificing safety.”

More than half of the district’s runs are for medical reasons, which only need two people to respond. Four firefighters must be on the scene before they can enter a burning building, but in those cases the district just calls for more engines.

Minimum staffing has never been part of Fire District 3’s union contract. The union also supports an extensive use of interns and volunteers to buffer paid staff, saving about $500,000 a year, he said. The district also limits overtime by prohibiting the 22 people on its payroll from taking vacation if others already have requested the same days off.

“I have to credit our battalion chief and our union again,” Mattern said. “They don’t want to earn overtime just so they can mess with the system. It’s a concerted effort to make that work.”

However, Mattern acknowledged what other chiefs pointed out: that the rural nature of his district’s work may make getting rid of minimum staffing much easier than it would be in urban fire departments.

The chiefs at Fire District 6 and Washougal also questioned the effectiveness of eliminating minimum staffing.

“We feel it’s unsafe to have a single firefighter on duty for a city of 14,000,” Washougal’s Schumacher said.

In Vancouver, however, Chief Molina said that something may have to give.

There are 170 people to fill 37 spots every day. When vacation, leave and sick time are included, the department needs more than 53 people available daily to avoid overtime. Right now, Vancouver has 49 people daily.

At the battalion chief level, which is unionized, eight chiefs are needed, since two battalion chiefs must be on duty at all times. Vancouver currently has six, which stems from a 2006 contract agreement where the chiefs agreed to work overtime for 1.25 times their base pay, less than the typical payout of 1.5 times their base pay.

Still, five of them made the city’s top 20 highest-paid employee list. In Vancouver, three battalion chiefs retired last year, and three new people have been promoted to fill their seats.

“We haven’t started bargaining with this labor group yet, but at some point we have to look at the ’06 contract negotiations and revisit where we are, in regards to is it better to include more (full time employees) in that position?” Molina said. “Is it still a bargain? It appeared to be a bargain in ’06. It’s not cheap to hire a (full time employee).”

The chiefs also said that some may not have a problem with top fire employees making more than administrators.

“When they’re getting as close to the chief or even above, for some people that’s an issue,” Fire District 6 Chief Green said. “Others say they’re the ones out in the field doing the work.”

Molina pointed out his battalion chiefs are the ones who organize fire response, which can include managing rescue, putting out the blaze and protecting other properties.

All of them have more than 20 years of experience and are well educated; all but one have completed a bachelor’s degree in business administration or fire management. The chiefs also hold multiple training certificates.

“They are senior and they’re all very high-performing, dealing with problem-solving and are able to deal with dynamic situations,” Molina said. “It is a very demanding job.”

Andrea Damewood: andrea.damewood@columbian.com, 360-735-4542, http://twitter.com/col_cityhall.

Local Public Salaries 2009-2010

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