By Matt StilesStaff Writer
Dec. 8, 2019 7:46 AM
Faced with an unprecedented string of wildfires across California, overtime costs for firefighters have surged by 65% in the last decade, pushing annual wages to nearly $5 billion, according to a Times analysis of state payroll records. The overtime spending is further evidence of a statewide toll: Wildfires have destroyed thousands of homes, killed scores of residents and disrupted power supplies across large swaths of the state — and, increasingly, they are chewing through government budgets.
With overtime, firefighters are among the best-paid workers in California government, in some cases earning sums that rival their commanders. In the city and county fire departments in Los Angeles, for example, the number of firefighters earning more than $100,000 in overtime alone has surged from 41 in 2011 to 1,085 last year. Eight years ago, only three firefighters in Los Angeles earned a $300,000 salary, The Times’ analysis found. Last year, overtime fueled more than 200 salaries above that amount, and the premium pay now represents a third of the payroll for L.A. firefighters.
Despite those eye-popping paychecks, fire commanders and experts across the state argue that it’s often cheaper to pay the overtime than to hire more firefighters, once the cost of training and benefits for new employees are taken into account. But with increasing numbers of workers spending 24-hour shifts on the fire lines, there are growing concerns that the system is placing too much strain on government coffers — and on the firefighters themselves.
“In these different burning conditions, we’re seeing larger fires at all ends of the state,” said Stewart Gary, a former fire chief turned emergency management consultant who helped write a government report on last year’s devastating Woolsey fire. “Yes, it comes at a cost.”
It comes at a societal cost — and at a cost to individuals, neighborhoods and businesses, he said. “And certainly, [at] a cost to the fire agencies, firefighters and their families.”
Last month, L.A. Controller Ron Galperin called for “better oversight and regulation” of overtime citywide, releasing an audit that included concerns about high pay for firefighters. One firefighter made $360,010 in overtime in one year alone, according to the audit.
In April, L.A. County auditors found that fire commanders should improve compliance with annual overtime limits and mandatory rest periods. It also noted concerns about timecard accuracy and firefighters’ practice of “trading” shifts without official documentation. Given the situation, the Los Angeles County Fire Department has launched a public campaign to convince voters that it needs more revenue. The Board of Supervisors voted last week to place a proposed parcel tax on the March ballot. If approved, it would fund new firefighter and paramedic jobs, helping the department keep up with wildfires and medical calls. It also would finance new communications systems, vehicles and new infrastructure.
For various reasons, some level of overtime is critical to operations at most fire agencies in California, experts say. The Times’ analysis of statewide payroll data uncovered $1.3 billion in fire overtime last year. During the longer, 10-year-period examined by The Times, spending at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, increased 142%. The department’s press office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
To understand the scale of overtime use across the state, The Times reviewed employee payroll data submitted to the California controller’s office by thousands of cities, counties and government districts. The records, submitted under a law requiring transparency in government payrolls, also include information about state workers. The data include millions of records with anonymized payroll details for each employee, including dollar amounts for their base wages, overtime and benefits from calendar years 2011 to 2018 — the most recent data available.
The Times selected the roughly 50,000 firefighters who work statewide based on their titles, as reported by government agencies. This group included supervisory or support firefighters, such as battalion chiefs, captains or engineers. The analysis sought to account for the wide variance in work titles. A perfect listing, however, is impossible. But the data show clearly that overtime costs, even when adjusted for inflation, have increased significantly. Those departments also are relying more heavily on overtime as a share of their overall firefighter payrolls, the records show.
Firefighters receive overtime under a complex set of scheduling rules dictated by the nature of their work, federal regulations governing overtime, and negotiated contracts between their management and public safety unions. Most firefighters and their midlevel managers work 24-hour shifts — roughly nine or 10 scheduled each month — in departments that employ “constant staffing.” That means they generally try to ensure that each fire station remains fully staffed, even when employees are sick or injured — or off battling wildfires in another area. To maintain these staffing expectations, firefighters who aren’t working their normal shifts must fill vacancies.
Policymakers and fire administrators plan for this reality, baking it into their budgets. Many believe that overtime, if managed properly, can be cheaper than hiring additional employees, who come with added health and retirement costs. They also note that many wildfire-related expenses are reimbursed under the state’s mutual aid system, with fire departments committing to help one another across jurisdictions. Those payments distributed under a partnership with the federal government have increased from $94 million in 2014 to $260 million last year — another indicator of the effect on taxpayers, said Brian Marshall, fire chief for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
But there are non-fiscal costs to consider, too, experts say. Among them, worker fatigue from multiple day-long shifts, time away from family — or the stress from the public perception that a select group of firefighters is making more money than it should be at a government job. “Folks look at what the costs of these things are, and I think it always surprises,” said David Rocha, chief of the Alameda County Fire Department.
Rocha said his department has been asked to help out on numerous large wildfires in recent years. Those expenses are eventually reimbursed by state or federal emergency officials, but the commitment still strains his workers who stay behind. The firefighters who get sent away for several days or weeks to fight wildfires also come home strained by fatigue, with nagging coughs, he said. Others have more acute injuries. One of Rocha’s firefighters, for example, recently stumbled upon a hive of bees while assigned to a brush fire. The employee suffered multiple stings, requiring a hospital visit and missed shifts at his local station.
“The sheer number of hours you’re asking guys to work, there’s fatigue,” he said. “The person I send, they may be gone for two or three weeks, but I’ve got their spot to fill back home.”
This dynamic is true for departments of all sizes.
At the Novato Fire Protection District, which has only five stations and about 20 firefighters or fire supervisors on duty at a time, the reliance on overtime has increased steadily. In 2011, overtime accounted for 17% of firefighter payroll at the district. Last year, it was 34%. The amount spent during that time rose from $1.1 million to $3.8 million — a 225% increase. The department’s chief, Bill Tyler, said his department has seen a rise in wildfire commitments through the mutual aid system. “There are people who come home injured,” Tyler said of commitments outside of Novato, a city of about 55,000 in Marin County. “Then you’re paying for people who are injured and off — and you’re paying at an overtime rate for their backfill to maintain constant staffing.”
The “constant staffing” model took a particular toll in Los Angeles County during the Woolsey fire, which destroyed 1,600 structures over several days. As that blaze raged, Daryl Osby, chief of the L.A. County Fire Department, had to staff more than 170 stations from Malibu to Pomona. The department paid roughly $200 million on firefighter overtime last year, up from $140 million in 2011. The extra pay now accounts for a third of the payroll. “We rely on overtime to meet the mission because we are understaffed,” Osby said.
Osby said he needs more funding from taxpayers to respond not only to fires, but to a 50% increase in emergency medical calls. The department is funded primarily through a special property tax and fees paid by numerous cities that receive its services.
At the L.A. County Fire Department, overtime is periodically capped to avoid excessive work among a select group of firefighters who don’t mind accepting extra shifts on a regular basis. Those caps are lifted during emergencies, though. The Times has reported on individual firefighters who spend as much as 75% of their lives in fire stations — some earning salaries in excess of $400,000 annually. Osby said he’s carefully monitoring his overtime costs. “We’re reevaluating everything in relation to overtime,” he said. “We are exploring all avenues to ensure that we’re spending taxpayers’ dollars as efficiently as we can.”
Gary, the consultant who worked on the post-Woolsey report, said chiefs such as Osby have a “well-honed” understanding of how to use overtime to meet their needs. He believes the pay can be used effectively. “Catastrophic fires are expensive to the homeowner. They are expensive to the business owner. They are expensive to government,” he said. “These are horribly expensive tragedies.”