Public-Sector Unions Keep the Gravy Train Flowing to Fire Departments
Firefighting isn't what it used to be. Thanks to fire suppression technology, structural fires are now very rare, and statistics show that firefighters rarely fight fires anymore. Mostly, firefighters respond to run-of-the-mill medical emergencies in fancy million-dollar trucks. Governing magazine lays out the change over time:
In 1980, according to the National Fire Protection Association, the nation's 30,000 fire departments responded to 10.8 million emergency calls. About 3 million were classified as fires. By 2013, total calls had nearly tripled to 31.6 million, while fire calls had plummeted to 1.24 million, of which just 500,000 of were actual structure fires. For America's 1.14 million career and volunteer firefighters, that works out to an average of just one structure fire every other year.
In other words, a enormous number of firefighters could be replaced by paramedics — using much less-expensive vehicles — and no one would notice.
But don't let these facts get in the way of the romantic view of firefighting perpetuated by popular culture.
And no organization loves the fantasy version of firefighting better than the public unions that lobby constantly for more lucrative salaries and benefits for firefighters.
Some unions are more successful than others, of course, but as firefighting becomes safer and safer, the Los Angeles Police Department has only been raking in more and more dough, and provides an example of just how far firefighters can go in exploiting the public's benevolent view of everyone's favorite government agency.
According to just-released 2016 salary data from TransparentCalifornia.com, just three Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) employees, for example, earned a combined $1.36 million last year — $974,779 of which came from overtime pay alone.
Unsurprisingly, the LAFD trio earned the three largest overtime payouts of the more than 550,000 workers surveyed statewide:
- Fire captain Charles Ferrari received $334,655 in OT, with total earnings of $469,198.
- Fire captain James Vlach received $332,583 in OT, with total earnings of $469,158.
- Firefighter Donn Thompson received $307,542 in OT, with total earnings of $424,913.
More alarming than the large dollar amounts was the discovery of what this money was being spent on. The Times reported that most overtime pay:
…is not being used for fires or other emergencies. Instead, most of it goes for replacing those who are out because of vacations, holidays, injuries, training, illnesses or personal leaves. Millions more go to firefighters on special assignments, such as in-house training and evaluation programs.
Six-Figure OT Payouts up 760% over Past 5 Years
In the original 1996 Times report, a retired LAFD firefighter described overtime pay as “a little extra bonus for the guys,” that allows them to get “a new boat on the river and a new truck every year.”
Back then, the department’s largest OT payout was just under $103,000.
And as the dollar amount of these payouts exploded, so too has their number, particularly over the past five years.
Since 2012, the number of LAFD workers who received overtime payouts of at least $100,000 increased by 760 percent, hitting an all-time high of 439 last year.
In 1995, the LAFD spent a “budget-wrenching” $58.6 million on overtime pay.
In 2008, that number hit $139 million, which prompted a recently retired fire captain to call for an overhaul of the department’s staffing system, according to the DailyNews.
Now at $197 million — which represents a more than twofold increase since 1995, after adjusting for inflation — overtime pay constitutes 31 percent of LAFD’s expenses, according to the City’s adopted budget for the 2016 fiscal year.
Admittedly, the LAFD's payouts are particularly egregious. By comparison, only one fire employee in the entire state of Nevada received a six-figure OT payout last year: Carson City fire captain Matthew Donnelly, who earned $110,217 in overtime pay, according to TransparentNevada.com. But firefighter salaries nationwide have long been a millstone around the neck of municipal governments which have struggled to keep up with what one Michigan official called “above market” salaries enjoyed by fire department employees.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that any time a city government considers cutting firefighter salaries — or, more likely, not increasing salaries — the public unions that lobby for pay hikes claim the city is sacrificing public safety and disrespecting the “heroes” who deserve six-figure salaries and fat pensions, no matter what.
In Los Angeles, however, any reform in this arena will require years of unwinding intricate contracts that are heavily slanted in favor of government employees and against taxpayers. For example, a contract provision with the LAFD requires vacation leave to count as hours worked toward overtime pay illustrates the root cause of the department’s soaring overtime costs, according to Robert Fellner of Transparent California:
The issue is not a lack of solutions. Those have been forthcoming from a coalition of experts, including those from LAFD’s own ranks, for decades. The issue is lack of a political will for the precise reason an official outlined nearly two decades ago: fear of political retaliation.
Unfortunately, public unions have weaponized the trust bestowed upon the firefighting profession as a means to enrich themselves, at the expense of public safety and taxpayers alike.