County Manager George Burgess on Wednesday asked Miami-Dade Fire Chief Herminio Lorenzo to review his department's fire-watch policy and recommend reforms to a program that has generated millions of dollars in extra pay for county firefighters.
In a memo, Burgess told Lorenzo to examine "more cost effective and efficient" ways to provide fire protection to buildings with broken fire alarms or sprinkler systems. The memo follows a Miami Herald examination of Miami-Dade's fire-watch practices published Sunday.
Unlike many fire departments, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue requires building owners to hire county firefighters - sometimes at overtime rates exceeding $100 an hour - to stand on "fire watch" at buildings with broken alarms. Many cities across the country and in South Florida, including Miami and Miami Beach, allow security guards to do this work for as little as $10 an hour.
Some building owners have compared fire watch to a protection racket, and complained that firefighters did little for the money. Since 2000, Miami-Dade firefighters have collected $4.3 million in extra pay while on fire watch. "Is there another more cost effective and efficient manner to operate, while not jeopardizing the health and public safety of our residents?" Burgess asked. "You need to examine how other jurisdictions perform fire watch duties."
Burgess wants the fire chief to file a report on fire watch in 30 days.
Fire officials and the firefighters union say their policy is a principled, if flawed, attempt to make sure that building owners comply with fire codes.
"We're not here to shake down the public, " said Stan Hills, president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters. "The intention of fire watch is to enforce the fire code, not to make anybody rich."
However, the firefighters union contract requires the fire department to allow only firefighters - not private security guards - on fire-watch duty. Hills said that has been part of the contract for 30 years.
The same provision is in a new three-year contract that will be considered by the County Commission this summer. In the memo, Burgess questioned whether the contract language is "fiscally responsible."
Burgess also said he was "concerned" about the fire department's controls over its time and payroll systems. Some firefighters have worked on fire watch - where they are required to stay awake - for more than 48 hours straight, The Miami Herald found.
Hills agreed that 48-hour fire-watch shifts were "an issue that would need to be looked at, " and said the department's payroll system needs to be modernized.
After The Miami Herald made inquiries about fire watch, Chief Lorenzo asked the county auditor and the Miami-Dade Police Department to examine the program. Lorenzo did not return a phone call seeking comment on Wednesday.
Apart from the union contract, county officials say their fire-watch policy is mandated by a local code that requires firefighters to patrol any "performance, exhibition, display, contest or activity" where the nature of the activity might pose a safety risk. Although the code does not specifically refer to buildings with inoperable alarms, county attorneys say this law applies to them, too.
County Commissioner Carlos Gimenez, who served as Miami's fire chief for nine years, said he may propose legislation to change the policy.
"I think we need a more common-sense approach to this policy, " he said.
County Mayor Carlos Alvarez also called for a "thorough review" of the policy.
The state fire code does not exclude security guards from fire-watch work. The state fire marshal's office did not know that Miami-Dade was applying its own, different law until this week, despite a 2001 effort to standardize fire codes statewide, said Gabe Mazzeo, the state fire marshal's supervisor of investigations.
FOLLOWING THE LAW
County Commissioner Natacha Seijas, who has criticized The Miami Herald stories as not thorough, said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue is merely following the law. She suggested that Miami and other cities should do the same. "Municipalities should be compelled [to hire firefighters] as we are, " she said.