LAFD Dispatchers, Aeromedical Technicians Not Firefighters For FLSA Purposes

A group of dispatchers and aeromedical technicians working for the Los Angeles Fire Department sued the City, claiming they were wrongly treated as “fire protection personnel” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The distinction is a huge one. Instead of being subject to the FLSA’s 40-hour-per-week overtime standard, “fire protection personnel” are covered by the FLSA’s Section 7(k) exemption and need not be paid overtime until they work lengthy hours under a “work period” of between seven and 28 days.

The dispatchers work out of the Operations Control Division, located four levels below City Hall in Los Angeles. Dispatchers receive emergency calls and send a dispatch message to the fire station and any specific vehicles to be dispatched. If an incident is large enough, dispatchers are sent to the scene to act as liaisons between the incident commander and Operations Control Division, tracking the incident and dispatching further resources. No dispatcher, however, has worked at a fire scene for at least ten years.

During their shifts, dispatchers are not required to have any fire protective gear with them, nor are they required to handle firefighting equipment. They do not go into the field to physically engage in fire or rescue operations. Dispatchers must have worked for the Fire Department as either a firefighter or a paramedic for at least four years before becoming a dispatcher. The majority of dispatchers were trained as firefighters.

Aeromedical technicians work within the Department’s Air Operations Unit, providing support services for helicopters designated as air ambulances. The technicians must be certified and have experience as both firefighters and as paramedics. Aeromedical technicians spend the majority of their flights administering medical care. Other responsibilities include scene security, rescue operations, and helicopter equipment maintenance.

Aeromedical technicians are not outfitted with the same gear used by firefighters. Technicians wear fire-resistant Nomex flight suits for protection in the event of a fire on the helicopter. These suits are not designed to fight fires. Air Operations Unit helicopters are occasionally used during brush fires to drop water and to map out the fires. If an air ambulance helicopter is used to drop water, aeromedical technicians will load a hose and fittings onto the helicopter. Although it is not their primary responsibility to do so, they will fill the helicopter with water and fuel so that the equipment is ready for immediate use when the firefighters arrive. Aeromedical technicians do not ride in the helicopter when it drops water on the fire.

The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that neither the dispatchers nor the aeromedical technicians were covered by the Section 7(k) exemption, and had to be paid overtime on a 40-hour-per-week basis. The Court’s opinion centered on Section 203(y) of the FLSA, which defines “employee in fire protection activities”:

“An employee, including a firefighter, paramedic, emergency medical technician, rescue worker, ambulance personnel, or hazardous materials worker, who (1) is trained in fire suppression, has the legal authority and responsibility to engage in fire suppression, and is employed by a fire department of a municipality, county, fire district, or State; and (2) is engaged in the prevention, control, and extinguishment of fires or response to emergency situations where life, property, or the environment is at risk.”

The Court found that “under the plain meaning of § 203(y), dispatchers do not have the ‘responsibility to engage in fire suppression.’ The term most logically refers to those who are dispatched to the fire scene and actively engage the fire. Plaintiff dispatchers, working from the City Hall basement, do not suppress the fire; they send firefighters to the scene to suppress the fire.

“Furthermore, dispatchers need not be trained in fire suppression. While Plaintiffs in this case all happen to have been trained as firefighters, dispatchers trained only as paramedics do the exact same job and are paid standard overtime on a forty-hour-workweek basis.

“Like dispatchers, aeromedical technicians do not ‘engage in fire suppression.’ Helicopter support operations mainly consist of medical duties, with the air ambulance substituting for a road ambulance. Other duties include setting up equipment, loading hoses and fittings onto helicopters, filling the helicopters with water, establishing secure landing sites, and evacuating people. These technicians do none of the activities normally associated with suppressing a fire.

“Aeromedical technicians are not required to wear full fire protective gear, regardless of the particular air ambulance helicopter assignment. Even when an air ambulance is called on to drop water on a fire, aeromedical technicians never go with the helicopter. And although aeromedical technicians perform more duties than road ambulance paramedics, these duties are limited to support activities, not fire suppression.

“For these reasons, we conclude that dispatchers and aeromedical technicians do not ‘engage in fire suppression’ and thus should not be denied standard overtime pay.”

Haro v. City of Los Angeles, 2014 WL 1013244 (9th Cir. 2014).