San Diego is planning a firefighter hiring spree to shrink ballooning overtime costs that are creating budget problems at City Hall.
The city’s goal is to increase the number of firefighters from about 900 to more than 1,100 over the next five years. That may be a challenge, with retirements on the rise and more firefighters leaving for other agencies with higher pay, a union leader said.
About half of the 220 additional firefighters will be needed to staff five new fire stations scheduled to begin operations within the next five years and to staff six new roving fire engines that will be deployed in areas with poor emergency response times, according to city finance documents.
The rest of the new firefighters will help create a “relief pool” to cover shifts when firefighters take vacation or call in sick, shifts that are covered now by full-time firefighters forced to work overtime hours.
The lack of adequate staff, combined with stricter rules on the use of vacation time and other policy changes, has increased the city’s cost for firefighter overtime by about 50 percent during each of the last two fiscal years, the documents show.
In each of the fiscal years 2014 through 2017, San Diego spent between $29.7 million and $32.5 million on firefighter overtime. That jumped to $45.4 million in fiscal 2018 and is projected to climb to $45.9 million in the current fiscal year.
The primary cause of the spike is firefighters taking significantly more vacation time in recent years to comply with a city mandate that they reduce their accrued vacation time to the city’s 330-hour maximum by June 30 of this year.
Since the mid-1990s, city firefighters have been allowed to exceed that maximum because staffing challenges made it difficult for them to take vacation time.
San Diego operates under a “constant staffing” model, where each engine company must be fully staffed at all times, making vacations hard to schedule.
In addition, because a typical firefighter works 10 shifts a month of 24 hours each and then has 20 days off, they have an easier time than other city employees taking vacations without using any of their accrued vacation time, city officials said.
But a new labor agreement that took effect in July 2016 requires firefighters, some of whom had accumulated nearly 2,000 hours of vacation time, to take enough vacation to lower their total accrued time to 330 hours or less by June 30.
City officials were concerned about carrying so many vacation hours, valued at many millions of dollars, on the city’s books as a long-term financial liability.
The new policy has forced many firefighters to take significantly more vacation time than normal during the last three years, requiring many more overtime shifts by other firefighters who had to cover for them.
That overtime can be lucrative.
For example, two fire captains received nearly $200,000 each in overtime pay during 2017, according to the open-government website Transparent California. Also, two fire engineers received about $150,000 each in overtime that year, the most recent for which data is available.
Most didn’t take home that much. Overtime payouts to San Diego firefighters averaged more than $30,000 in 2017.
Those payouts were in addition to the annual salaries received by firefighters. A firefighter with four years experience, for instance, receives a base salary of more than $65,000.
Another factor in the overtime upsurge is a new city policy that calculates firefighter overtime pay more generously.
Starting in July 2017, city officials agreed to begin counting paid vacation shifts toward the total number of hours a firefighter must work to be eligible for overtime pay.
Under federal law, firefighters are not entitled to overtime pay for exceeding eight hours of work in a day, or 40 hours of work in a week, like most hourly workers. Instead they get overtime for any hours worked beyond 216 in a 28-day period.
Most fire agencies have counted paid vacation shifts toward that 216-hour total. But San Diego had not until the recent change, said Jesse Conner, president of the labor union representing city firefighters.
“The city had said you have to be physically at work for at least 216 hours to get overtime,” Conner said last week. “They weren’t breaking the rules; they were interpreting them liberally.”
Another factor in the overtime spike is a new policy aimed at preventing devastating wildfires, like those San Diego experienced in 2003 and 2007.
“Policies changed where we now staff rigs under certain weather conditions if there’s a fear that there is a high probability of wildfire,” Conner said. “The faster we can put resources on a smaller fire, the less chance we have of battling a career fire.”
The 111-firefighter relief pool San Diego plans to create would help reduce the amount of overtime these new policies have prompted, Chief Colin Stowell told the City Council.
To begin creating that relief pool, Stowell added an extra firefighter academy this spring and has scheduled three academies each in fiscal years 2020, 2021 and 2022. Each academy has space for 36 recruits, and the city typically hosts one or two academy classes a year.
City officials say that, going forward, they will need two academies each year to keep up with retirements and attrition, and that the third academy each year will help build the relief pool.
Councilman Scott Sherman praised the city’s plan.
“I can’t emphasize enough how we need to get to full staffing with firefighters,” he said during a budget hearing earlier this month.
“It’s more than just we’re paying for all this overtime every year. I don’t want tired firefighters climbing a ladder to go rescue somebody out of a burning building. I want people who are rested up.”
Conner said the firefighters union supports the hiring plan.
“The more relief personnel you have available, the fewer vacancies you would have to fill on overtime,” he said.
But he predicted the overtime savings may be smaller than some expect.
The city must provide new firefighters with fringe benefits, like health care, that eat into the savings, he said. The city avoids those costs when it pays existing employees overtime.
Conner said the city will have no problem filling each of the additional academies, but he is concerned that the number of firefighters might not increase by more than 200.
More firefighters have begun leaving for other agencies, primarily because of low pay, he said, and because San Diego is the only fire agency in the state that does not provide pensions to new firefighters.
The city stopped providing pensions to new hires, except police officers, after city voters approved Proposition B in 2012.
San Diego replaced its pensions with 401(k)-style retirement plans that some workers, especially those not planning to spend their entire career with the city, prefer to pensions because they are portable.
But firefighters tend to prefer pensions because they usually make firefighting a career.
Proposition B also mandated a five-year freeze on pay hikes that makes firefighter compensation relatively low in San Diego. Conner said a union survey of other agencies shows that city firefighter pay is last among the 18 fire agencies in San Diego County and last among 24 comparable firefighting agencies elsewhere in the state.
“We’ll absolutely be able to add the people, but the problem is keeping them,” Conner said.
“Some start looking around and wondering why we aren’t like those other departments. We have a continued stream of people that we train up, spend a lot of money on and then they leave.”
The five-year pay freeze may also affect the city’s ability to hire another 108 firefighters to new stations slated to open during the next five years and to six new roving engines.
The new stations, which require 12 full-time firefighters each, are slated for University City, Black Mountain Ranch, Fairmont Avenue, Paradise Hills and the UC-San Diego campus.
The roving engines, which require eight full-time firefighters each, will begin operating during the fiscal year that begins this July. City officials plan to deploy three roving engines the first year, and three more during fiscal 2021.