Last year, Miami’s fire department handed out overtime like it was candy. And for a small group of the department’s senior-most members, 2014 was one big piñata.
From January to December, captains Edgar Acosta, Earl Allen Jr. and John Gonzalez logged extreme workloads and just about doubled their $116,000 salaries, according to the records from the city’s budget office. Already working 52-hour weeks, the trio each worked more than 1,700 overtime hours as the fire department’s overtime budget soared from $4 million the previous year to $8 million.
In Gonzalez’s case, the department veteran worked an estimated 2,000 overtime hours, earning $133,000 in time-and-a-half pay and bringing in more money than the city’s $265,000-a-year Fire Chief Maurice Kemp. To reap that kind of haul, he had to squeeze almost two years of work into 12 months.
City and fire officials now say the circumstances involving a small number of mostly captains and lieutenants were created by a “perfect storm” of factors, starting with a decision by the city commission to roll out decommissioned fire units without increasing staff. City administrators say they’re working to curb overtime by hiring scores of new recruits, catching up on promotions and renegotiating the fire union’s contract.
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But the costly situation was entirely predictable.
The city’s struggle with its firefighter overtime costs began during the recession, after Miami commissioners unilaterally slashed generous union wages and benefits in order to cut costs and fill a gaping budget hole. The move sent scores of senior fire rescue members into retirement; 240 retired in the past three years, Kemp says. Commissioners also decommissioned the city’s fire rescue boat and two rescue trucks in order to cut man hours to a level the fire chief now acknowledges was “dire-straits staffing.”
Meanwhile, the city fell behind on its promotional exams, leaving fewer firefighter-paramedics to handle a growing number of emergency calls. Then, in October 2013, at Kemp’s request, commissioners agreed to bring back the decommissioned trucks and fire boat to bolster a rescue staff that had been severely depleted.
“As the city recovered financially, I felt it was time to no longer roll the dice,” Kemp said.
The decision was made even though Miami’s commissioners knew the city didn’t have enough firefighters — in particular fire lieutenants and captains — to staff the trucks and boats without substantially boosting overtime. As a result, the fire department’s overtime costs increased, and placed a greater burden on senior members of the department to work more hours.
“We are facing a ‘perfect storm’ of challenges that are affecting the distribution of overtime last fiscal year and likely this fiscal year,” Budget Director Chris Rose explained in a February email to the Miami Herald. “The city has been significantly behind in both promotions as well as hiring. Attrition rates have exceeded replacement rates.”
Kemp said Gonzalez — who like Acosta and Allen declined to comment for this report through a union representative — was just following the union’s contract. The labor agreement fills overtime positions from the top down, meaning captains get first shot at an open position. Rose said the city is attempting to renegotiate that aspect of the city’s collective bargaining agreement.
The three captains rode on fire trucks and responded to emergency calls, like any other firefighter, Kemp said. But he called them “outliers” outside the norm in a department of hundreds, and says his department maintained a policy that caps shifts — normally 24 hours — at 48 hours straight.
“[Gonzalez] followed the rules. Do I want my members to work that many hours of overtime? I wouldn’t say that’s optimal, but this gentleman works overtime and he’s away from his family an inordinate amount,” Kemp said. “We have the limiting factor of 48 hours in a row [maximum] so I don’t have fatigue on those trucks.”
Still, emergency medical services consultant Jay Fitch says fatigue remains a concern in the public safety industry, and it’s something local officials should consider when making staffing decisions. Fitch, founding partner of the Missouri-based Fitch & Associates, said multiple studies show that paramedics’ critical thinking slows down toward the end of long shifts.
“We believe that it is an issue that must be addressed,” he said. “It’s kind of the elephant in the room.”
Robert Suarez, president of the city’s fire union last year, said the union warned commissioners that the city was creating an overtime explosion for some members of the department. Last April, when commissioners increased the department’s overtime budget by $2.5 million, some commissioners acknowledged as much.
“The fire administration recommended to the commission and administration that they bring the number of personnel in the street up back to the level it was at in 2010. But we didn’t physically have the people to reach that number,” Suarez said. “We knew what would happen.”
Issues with overtime are hardly unique to Miami’s fire department. Overtime expenses are a calculated cost for local governments, and can actually be cheaper than hiring new employees due to pension and healthcare costs. But Suarez said working intense amounts of overtime can be a burden, even if it pays well.
“Very few people want to do that,” he said. “It’s a pretty brutal schedule.”
Rose and Kemp say the city is addressing the overtime paid out by the department, and before the end of the year the city will have more firefighters on staff than before the recession. In February, the city put 50 new firefighters on the street and hired a new class of 78 trainees, which Suarez said was the largest ever trained in the city.
But it’s a difficult fight. This month, another 33 veteran firefighters are retiring, and training firefighters takes six months before they can hit the streets.
New fire union president Freddy Delgado is also renegotiating his group’s contract with the city. He said the union is proposing that the city create a system where hours are offered first to members who have worked the least amounts of overtime.