When a suspected lightning strike zapped the West Dade Public Library's fire-alarm system last March, the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department made librarians an offer they couldn't refuse: Hire us or close your doors.
The library was placed on "fire watch, " an ostensible public safety program that has never saved a life that anyone can remember, but has put at least $4.3 million into county firefighters' pockets since 2000.
Some have compared it to an old-fashioned protection racket.
Off-duty firefighters patrolled the two-story suburban library for seven months, keeping their eyes and nostrils alert for possible fire hazards.
In the first month alone, the department billed the library - and therefore county taxpayers - more than $54,000 for the round-the-clock patrols. Librarians gasped at the bills.
Instead of the firefighters, whom they were paying as much as $102 an hour, the librarians asked if they could have their own security guards watch the building. After all, professional help wasn't far away; the library shares its parking lot with a fire station nicknamed the "Westchester Express."
The answer would have been yes in New York, Los Angeles and even Miami, where $10-an-hour private guards perform fire watch.
In Miami-Dade County, the answer was no. It had to be county firefighters, the librarians were told.
County Fire Chief Herminio Lorenzo said that only his firefighters perform fire watches because that's the safest way to operate.
"When it comes to issues regarding the protection of Miami-Dade County residents, we do not cut corners or look for the cheapest solution at the expense of life safety, " Lorenzo wrote in an e-mail to The Miami Herald. After the newspaper's initial inquiries, Lorenzo asked the county auditor and inspector general to examine the fire-watch program.
Many business owners and government officials who have been compelled to pay for fire watch complained that the firefighters did little, or nothing, for the money.
"They spent the whole time in their vehicles just sleeping, " said Fernando Salazar, finance director for Tampa Cargo, a cargo airline based at Miami International Airport. MDFR firefighters spent most of last summer on fire watch at the company's warehouse.
"They used to stay in here and watch American Idol, " said Sergio Vassallo, who works at Radio Shack in the 163rd Street Mall. The mall accumulated a $90,000 fire-watch bill during renovations in 2004.
"They were always in there watching TV, reading newspapers, playing pool. I saw one guy out front feeding squirrels, " said Paul Levine, a former building manager at the Towers of Quayside, a Northeast Miami-Dade condo complex that ran up a $193,000 fire-watch bill in 2004 and 2005.
County Fire Marshal Manuel Mena acknowledged that he has fielded complaints about firefighters playing pool or watching television on the job.
But since a fire watcher's duty is simply to serve as a "human fire alarm, " that's not necessarily inappropriate, he said. "Whether they are watching TV or smoking a cigarette - as bad as they look, they're still doing their job."
Charges that firefighters slept on fire watch or abandoned their posts are hard to prove after the fact, Mena said. Punishment is rare. One firefighter was issued a written reprimand for an incident in October 2003 and another firefighter was suspended for a day in 1998, according to Chief Lorenzo's statement.
MDFR officials cannot point to a single instance in which county firefighters have detected or prevented a fire at a building under fire watch. "The purpose of firewatch is prevention of hazardous situations, " Lorenzo wrote. "By definition, that means we are taking actions to intercept possible threats to life safety before they occur."
One fire watcher directed a lost engine to a burning house from the roof of Quayside, said MDFR Capt. William Van Meter, who runs the fire-watch program.
DECLARING A WATCH A fire watch is required by law when a building's fire alarm or sprinkler system is broken and cannot be fixed within four hours. In Miami-Dade, a fire inspector not only declares the fire watch, but also decides how many MDFR firefighters are needed. The watch ends when the inspector approves the repairs.
Some business owners say they feel squeezed.
"It was as bad as the Mafia up North, " said Robert Birke, a former construction supervisor for the Turner Austin Airport Team, which until last summer was the prime contractor on the massive North Terminal expansion at Miami International Airport.
When consultants for the Miami-Dade Aviation Department questioned a $54,000 fire-watch bill last fall, MDFR Chief Financial Officer Scott Mendelsberg and Chief Lorenzo threatened to end fire watch at MIA and shut down a concourse.
"Mendelsberg's attempt to extort money from MDAD is unacceptable, " airport project director John Cosper wrote to his bosses on Oct. 19.
Closing the concourse "would have just caused chaos in the terminal. It would have been a disaster, " Cosper said later. Ultimately, the airport paid up.
"We did not want to resort to such an extreme measure, " Lorenzo wrote to The Miami Herald, "we felt that MIA had created a climate that required assertiveness." He said the fire department had previously "made extensive attempts" to collect.
PAYING FOR FIRE WATCH
In several interviews, Capt. Van Meter explained the department's practices this way: "You either pay us or you shut down. . . . Usually, it's cheaper to pay us."
Who pays? Often, it's business owners or condo associations whose buildings have failed inspections. They are charged under a schedule of per-hour costs set by the County Commission in 2004. But in cases of public buildings, such as MIA or the library, taxpayers cover the costs and it's all overtime, no matter how long the shifts.
National standards for fire watch require that the person on duty stays awake, patrols the building and has some way to contact the fire department in case of trouble. A cellphone will do.
Many South Florida jurisdictions, including the cities of Miami and Miami Beach, allow the use of private guards for the patrols.
"I don't see a need to pay a firefighter $45 an hour to walk up and down a hall, " said Key Biscayne Fire Chief Franklin Barron.
Fire departments in New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles also rely on private citizens for fire watch.
"It could be anybody, " said Ron Cabrera, a battalion chief with the fire prevention unit of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Lorenzo said his department's policy is mandated by a local fire code that requires firefighters to patrol any "performance, exhibition, display, contest or activity" that might pose a safety risk. The code says nothing about fire watches at buildings with inoperable alarms - but Fire Marshal Mena said it applies to them, too.
"If that's the case, then all of the other jurisdictions are doing something wrong, " said Miami Beach Fire Marshal Sonia Machen, who said she has been following a more recent state fire code. "We'll all have to consult with our attorneys on Monday."
Regardless of the code, Miami-Dade firefighters would get the work anyway - it's required by their union contract.
Van Meter, the Miami-Dade fire-watch supervisor, insists that MDFR's policy is safer. "Certainly a trained firefighter is better than an untrained security guard, " he said.
The department's policy is also more lucrative for the firefighters who get the work.
On 12 occasions at the West Dade library, firefighters logged at least 24 hours straight on fire watch - overtime that was paid on top of their regular hours. Lt. Hector Noel did it five times, once for a full 48 hours. Noel earned nearly $10,000 at the library in just 10 days, and $17,250 in all.
MDFR officials concede it's hard to believe that firefighters remain awake, as required, on such long shifts with very little to do. But they say there is nothing they can do about it.
"Prevent it? How do you prevent someone from sleeping?" asked Deputy Chief Al Suarez.
Often, the department charges extra for protection from high-ranking officers. Four different captains worked shifts at the library, including Van Meter himself, at $86 an hour. Capt. McGregor Sheppard worked a Saturday shift there for $102.49 an hour, fire department records show.
Tampa Cargo, a South American airline that specializes in imported flowers, paid up to $88 an hour for fire lieutenants to watch its warehouse at MIA last summer.
"They do exactly the same thing" as the ordinary firefighters, said Salazar, the airline's finance director. "They sit in the car and wait for something to happen."
MDFR charged overtime for the entire four-month fire watch at Tampa Cargo - which is a private company - because it sits on county land. Union rules require overtime "at county facilities, " Lorenzo wrote.
The fire department sends high-ranking officers to do fire watch only when their expertise is required or when there are no lower-ranking volunteers, Van Meter said. Any county firefighter, regardless of rank, can volunteer for the duty, and a computer selects the one with the fewest fire-watch hours, he said.
QUESTIONS AT AIRPORT
Nowhere has fire watch come under sharper scrutiny than at the airport, where county officials have questioned the number of hours logged by firefighters.
On Jan. 3, 2002, former fire inspector Norman Hepburn was paid for a 12-hour fire watch in MIA's Concourse D, records show. But investigators from the county Office of the Inspector General determined that he also billed taxpayers overtime for inspections performed in Concourse G during the same shift.
Hepburn and another inspector, Robert Cleary, were accused of inflating their overtime and arrested on 75 counts of fraud, theft and official misconduct. Hepburn died of cancer earlier this year while awaiting trial. Cleary has pleaded not guilty.
One airport employee brought concerns about fire-watch hours to Assistant County Manager Carlos Bonzon when he was MIA's interim director.
"We had guys who were practically working around the clock, " Bonzon said. "How can a human being be working so many hours and be effective? How can he be awake? That was [the] concern."
Former airport contractor Birke said he had suspicions about whether the fire watchers at MIA worked all the hours they were paid for.
"I would walk through that terminal at night and I could never find the fire watch, " said Birke, 63, who is now retired from Turner Austin and living in rural Florida. "They weren't doing anything, except collecting all this money."
But because he feared that the fire department's inspectors could expand fire watch with the stroke of a pen, Birke said he never complained in writing to fire or airport officials.
Van Meter said the department's inspectors order fire watches only when they are required by the fire code, and they are lifted the moment the alarms are repaired.
Under the rules, there is nothing to stop an inspector who declares a fire watch from also earning money working it.
At the West Dade library, an inspector ordered a 24-hour fire watch beginning March 11, 2005 - although the library is open for no more than 12 hours a day. He took the first 13-hour overnight shift himself, earning $1,202, records show.
As long as the underlying reason for the fire watch is legitimate, Mena said he sees no problem with an inspector making money from a job he assigns. "We're pretty comfortable with our checks and balances on that side of the house."
For nearly four weeks, two firefighters were posted in the library round-the-clock.
"It was not an expense we were happy to incur, " said William Urbizu, assistant director of the county library system, "but shutting down would have been unacceptable to the community."
Mena said library officials specifically requested the 24-hour service to protect a rare-book collection.
Urbizu said that's not true. "Rare books?" he said, laughing. "We have no rare books at that location."
Regardless, the repair job stretched out longer than anyone expected. Library officials spent March determining the nature of the problem and drawing up bid specifications for a contract to fix it, Urbizu said. Then the first month's bill, for $54,899, came with a costly surprise: Because of union rules, the firefighters had to be paid overtime.
Library officials persuaded the fire department to cut the number of firefighters on guard, records show, and the April bill came down to $32,117.
The fire watch continued through September, when the alarm system was finally replaced. The ultimate bill for taxpayers, $155,478, would have been much higher if the fire department had not agreed to use lower-ranking, lower-paid firefighters in the final months. Urbizu said he remains puzzled about why lieutenants and captains were ever necessary.
No one earned more at the library than Lt. Hector Noel, who described the work as a test for the senses. "You walk the halls, using basically your nose and your eyes, " he said. "It's just sniffing, sniffing, sniffing."
When not patrolling, Noel said, he caught up on the financial news in the library's periodicals section. The inherent tedium is one reason the department has difficulty filling all the available shifts and sometimes has to turn to higher-ranking officers, Noel said. "It's such a grind, a lot of the guys just couldn't take it. But I'm really into reading."