MONEY TO BURN | PART 2

Brass gets big money to attend big games

 

Top-ranking Miami-Dade firefighters show up in large numbers at high-profile sporting events under the county's fire-watch program.

jdolan@MiamiHerald.com

The Miami Dolphins paid Chief Fire Officer David Brooks $129 per hour to attend their game against the Chiefs at Dolphin Stadium last October - some of it hazardous-duty pay.

Capt. Allen Brown joined him for $109 per hour. Battalion Chief Andrew McConchie - whose labors at the stadium in the past 10 years have included 28 Dolphins games, 96 Marlins games and a professional cheerleading contest - got $96 an hour.

The trio attended the game as part of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department's "fire watch" program, which requires large venues that host public performances to pay the department for fire protection and paramedic services. In most cases, such as parades and street festivals, rank-and-file firefighters do the work for about $30 per hour.

But some big events get extraordinary attention from the county's top-ranking fire officials, department records show.

For example, 26 firefighters were on hand for Game 3 of the 2003 World Series, department officials say. Officers, including three chiefs, seven captains and six lieutenants, outnumbered the rank-and-file firefighters 16 to 10.

For last year's Dolphins' home opener against the Denver Broncos, 24 uniformed firefighters were at the stadium, 15 of them officers.

When the then-reigning Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots came to town in November, nine firefighters were supervised by 11 officers: two chiefs, seven captains and two lieutenants, department records show.

Capt. William Van Meter, who oversees fire watch, said it's ridiculous to think that any firefighter would sign up to work special events to enjoy the spectacle.

"If you're a fan, you'd rather be in the seats, with a ticket, drinking a beer, " instead of working the game and having "people bleeding on you, puking on you, " he said.

NO MAGIC NUMBER

The fire department has no specific formula to determine the ratio of officers to rank and file firefighters at events, according to a written statement the department released Wednesday night.

"Each unit is staffed with one OIC [Officer in Charge], " the statement said. The remainder are regular firefighters, when enough volunteer for the off-duty assignment, it said. Sometimes, events need officers of certain ranks, it said, without further explanation.

Fire departments typically use one officer for every five or six firefighters to staff events, said Miami-Dade firefighters union chief Stan Hills.

Miami Dolphins officials, who own the stadium and pay for fire watch at both baseball and football games, refused to comment for this story.

LOW-PROFILE EVENTS

The proportion of brass is dramatically lower when firefighters patrol the county fair, or the Santa's Enchanted Forest theme park in Southwest Miami-Dade County, where firefighters outnumbered officers 2-1 last holiday season, department records show.

At the 2005 NASCAR Championship at Homestead Motor Speedway last November, 66 firefighters stood by as hot cars full of flammable liquid circled the track at nearly 200 mph. They were supervised by 10 officers.

"Sixty-six to 10, that's a more reasonable ratio, " said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Carlos Gimenez, who spent nine years as chief of the city of Miami Fire Department. "There may be some justification for adding units to some games, but the proportion should stay the same, " Gimenez said.

Over the past three seasons, the average Marlins game has been staffed by eight firefighters, records show. One is usually a captain or a chief, who sits in an air-conditioned luxury box in straight-away center field and dispatches the others to requests for help.

It's usually easy work, by all accounts. "You could have 30,000 baseball fans in here and not get one call, " said Chief McConchie.

When calls do come, they typically involve a fan suffering from the heat or hit by a foul ball. They are rarely life-threatening emergencies. McConchie said he has never seen a "real serious injury" from a flying ball. "But they do happen, " he added.

Football games require many more firefighters, and the work is much harder. "I've been at football games with 60 or 70 calls, especially when the Jets are in town, " McConchie said. "They're packed in like sardines, it's hot early in the season and they're really drinking."

County fire codes require firefighters to be present at all large, public gatherings, including professional sporting events, big-time college football games, such as the Orange Bowl and races at Homestead.

Even smaller events, such as the MTV Video Music Awards and cheerleading contests at Dolphin Stadium, have to hire the firefighters, records show.

The idea is to make sure that local firehouses near the events don't get overwhelmed with 911 calls, so they can still respond to emergencies in their neighborhoods quickly.

Van Meter, who runs the special-events bureau, said firefighters are hired on a first-come, first-served basis. A computer selects applicants based on who has the fewest hours worked, and gives no preference to higher ranks, he said.

"But if I have an opening day for the Dolphins, and I don't have enough firefighters, I have to fill those jobs with officers, " Van Meter said.

MEDICAL NEEDS

Van Meter, who works every home Dolphins game as a liaison to both teams' medical staffs, said the proportion of officers is high at football games because it has been years since the department held a training class on how to treat on-field injuries. The people who are certified for that duty have since risen through the ranks, Van Meter said.

The special certification covers how to remove the helmet from a player with a possible spinal injury, how to calculate medication doses for oversized patients and how to perform CPR on someone in full pads, Van Meter said.

"This month we're going to have a certification class, so officer work will go down substantially for the stadium, " he added.

'IT'S TWO BEERS'

The 2003 World Series preceded Van Meter's appointment as head of the special events unit, but "I wouldn't think it would be hard to sign up guys for a World Series, " he conceded. Game 4 had 29 fire watchers: 16 officers, 13 firefighters. Game 5 ended in a kind of tie: 13 officers, 13 firefighters.

Using higher ranks usually has minimal impact on the cost to the stadium, Van Meter said. Under rates established by the Board of County Commissioners in 2004, firefighters are to be paid $28 per hour; lieutenants get $30; captains get $33 and chiefs get $36.

"It doesn't mean anything to the team. To them, it's two beers they have to sell to pay the difference, " Van Meter said.

OVERTIME PERKS

When the firefighters get paid overtime, as happened repeatedly last football season, the County Commission's rates no longer apply and the firefighters get 1.5 times their regular pay, which can include an array of extras.

Under union rules, Chief Fire Officer Brooks' $129-an-hour rate at the Chiefs game on Oct. 21 included: his base hourly pay of $46.61; plus a bump for having an associate's degree, another bump described as separate "educational incentive"; extra money for directing the department's Air Rescue team; a payment for hazardous duty; a bump for being the lead worker; and a separate payment for being the officer in charge, county payroll records show. All of that was then multiplied by 1.5.

"These are not hazards associated with the game itself. They are associated with the occupation, " Brooks said in an interview, explaining that the hazardous duty increment is tied to his regular role as Air Rescue director. The Dolphins paid overtime for protection at the Oct. 21 Chiefs game because they rescheduled for a Friday night to avoid Hurricane Wilma. Union rules require overtime when events are staffed on an "emergency" basis.

For the Carolina Panthers game in late September, 16 of the 25 who worked the game received overtime, including Chief Michael Hanley, who made $93.42 an hour, records show. MDFR officials said on Wednesday night that firefighters should not have been paid overtime and "payroll reimbursement will be arranged."

On the other hand, three of 21 firefighters who worked a Christmas Eve game against the Tennessee Titans "will have their pay adjusted to the overtime rate, " the statement said.

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