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Enhancement of pension benefits to firefighters transform firefighting from a blue-collar job to high-paying profession

babylon5

Golden Member
Dec 11, 2000
1,363
1
0
The current system is rigged so no more new fire fighters can be hired because of high cost of funding pensions. The current fire fighters could make a lot overtime but at a staggering cost to the entire system.

The most surprising figure to me is their retirement system rise from $42 million in 2006-2007 to more than $52 million in the current fiscal year, 10 million in just 2 years. How are they going to keep up in coming years?

LINK

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Officials defend firefighter OT of $28 million
More than 85 percent of overtime is spent staffing fire stations on normal days.

By NORBERTO SANTANA JR. AND RONALD CAMPBELL
The Orange County Register


Overtime costs at the Orange County Fire Authority hit $27.9 million last year, a 55 percent increase since 2003, an Orange County Register analysis of payroll records has found.

Most of the overtime ? 86 percent ? is spent to keep fire stations open on a 24 hour basis?not for major disasters like the Santiago and Freeway Complex fires.

Interviews and records show that a key factor behind the growth of overtime is the enhancement of pension benefits granted to firefighters in 2001. The pension benefits have boosted the cost of each firefighter dramatically, simultaneously discouraging the agency from new hires and encouraging more early retirements.

The result is more vacancies and larger overtime bills to cover empty shifts. Last year, the 61 vacant positions contributed to more than 30 percent of overtime payouts.

Meanwhile, the overtime has helped to transform firefighting from a blue-collar job to a high-paying profession. Last year OCFA's 814 firefighters, engineers and captains earned a median annual pay of $137,784. Overtime made up $36,488 of that. (Median is the number in the middle?half the firefighters made more and half made less.)

That compares to $111,082 for a senior deputy at the OC sheriff's department.

The Register analysis also found that:

?Overtime now makes up more than 26 percent of firefighter paychecks and more than 12 percent of the county fire authority's budget. Overtime pay has increased at twice the rate of base pay.

Overtime costs have been boosted by a series of annual pay raises. From 2003 to 2006, OCFA granted 4 percent raises each year. In 2007 and 2008, the raises were 3 percent. During that period, the agency added just 49 firefighters, a 6 percent increase. But its payroll swelled by 35 percent.

Because of the high cost of funding pensions, OCFA has restricted new hires: Only 40 new firefighters were hired in 2008. Today a quarter of the firefighters, engineers and captains who remain have been on the job for more than 20 years.

Fire authority administrators and union officials say the overtime is necessary to fully staff fire stations around the clock ? a practice referred to as constant staffing ? standard in most large fire departments.

"It really gets down to, we either have the overtime to cover time off, or we shut the engine down," said Fire Chief Chip Prather.

Most fire departments across the country have similarly large overtime bills. Orange County pays proportionally more fire overtime than some nearby jurisdictions?although the City of Los Angeles is higher still.

The City of San Diego spent 12 percent of its salary costs on overtime in fiscal 2007-2008, compared to the 26 percent spent at OCFA. Los Angeles County spent 21 percent of its salary and benefits budget on overtime.

The City of Los Angeles spends far more?in part because it staffs each fire engine with four firefighters?compared to three per engine for OC and most of Los Angeles county.

The Register asked for overtime spending numbers from the city of Los Angeles but officials said a response would be delayed because of numerous inquiries on this topic. The Los Angeles Daily News reported last week that the Los Angeles Fire Department spent nearly 25 percent of its total budget on overtime last year.

"We should appreciate the fact they're willing to put in the extra hours to keep fire engines in service in their community," said Joe Kerr, union president for the Orange County Professional Firefighters. "I don't think that people realize how many hours firefighters put in."

Kerr said the pay reflects the work and training demands placed on firefighters. "The amount of training rivals that of an attorney or doctor over the course of their career," he said.

It's more accurate in today's world to call it a "grey collar job," Kerr said.

Larger pensions equal fewer firefighters

In 2001, OCFA board members enhanced retirement benefits to allow sworn staff to retire at age 50, with an annual pension that can mirror final salary. Overtime is not included in pension calculations, officials said.

But the expanded benefit ? along with steep investment losses within the county's pension plan ? have caused annual payments to the retirement system by OCFA to rise from $42 million in fiscal 2006-2007 to more than $52 million in the current fiscal year.

Even with that increased payment, OCFA still faces a $185 million gap between what it pays into the pension system and what actuaries say the full cost will be.

Today, funding a fire captain's retirement costs the county $54,449 each year, officials say. An engineer's future retirement costs the county $46,765 a year and a firefighter $40,295.

Because of the soaring cost of pensions, OC fire officials, like many across the country, have avoided new hires, instead depending on overtime to cover shifts and keep balanced budgets.

And as older workers take advantage of the benefit and retire, they add to the vacant slots that in turn fuel more overtime.

OCFA officials say overtime is significantly cheaper than hiring new workers with full pension benefits ?and other major fire departments agree.

Compared to a standard five-day, 40 hour work week, firefighters work staggered 24-hour schedules?and are paid whether responding to emergencies or waiting at the station.

For example, in a month, a firefighter might work two 24-hour days the first week, three the next, two after that and three the final week.

For the month, that would be 10 days on and 20 days off.

Lori Zeller, Assistant Chief for Business Services, calculates that to fill in a shift for a firefighter, the OCFA pays $47.93 per hour to cover pay and benefits. That same shift filled through overtime (which only includes base and overtime pay) totals $38.41 per hour. The biggest factor in that calculation is the $18.32 paid on an hourly basis for pension benefits.

Thus, it's cheaper by $9.52 per hour, or about 25 percent, to fill a shift on overtime rather than through a new hire, Zeller said.

Firefighters point out that some overtime shifts are mandatory because of staff shortages.

"I was forced (to work) for 370 hours of backfill (overtime) last year," said Robert James, 42, who works as an engineer/paramedic and has been at the agency since 1994.

James worked a lot of overtime last year because of a shortage of engineers. He earned more than $75,000 in overtime, which put him in the top 20 earners and helped propel his annual pay to $194,657.

While firefighters welcome the supplemental income, James said, so much overtime does take a toll.

"Being forced (to work) that many hours definitely affects your family," said James, who is married with three daughters. "Friends and neighbors realize it because they try to get hold of me. They tell me, 'you're never home."

But James added, "Someone has to be there every day to save lives, property and respond to all the different emergencies."

County Supervisor Bill Campbell, who sits on the OCFA board, has expressed concern at the current cost of overtime.

"It seems too high to me," Campbell said. "I think highlighting this will get management's attention. Then we have to see what we can do."

Fremont Fire Chief Bruce Martin, who recently wrote a column for Fire Chief Magazine on the overtime debate, said the constant staffing model doesn't leave much wiggle room.

To avoid overtime, Martin said, agencies would have to hire more staff, meaning that on some days a station would have extra firefighters.

"I can make a dent in overtime but you're going to have to pay for extra firefighters," Martin said.

Constant staffing works firefighters hard and leaves little time for training, community outreach or other non-emergency functions, Martin said. And not hiring new workers creates challenges for the future as firefighters get older and they aren't replaced by younger hires.

That is already becoming a challenge at OCFA where a quarter of the firefighters, engineers and captains have been on the job for more than 20 years.

Kerr, the firefighter union leader, said paying out overtime isn't exactly a strategy for the future.

Kerr added that he expects OCFA to eventually craft a new ? and cheaper - retirement benefit for new hires, which would allow more staff and lower overtime payouts.

"It's one of the things we recognize is going to be on the table," Kerr said.

Who's earning the overtime?

Last year, after an Orange County Register investigation into the sheriff's department, county supervisors launched a performance audit that found widespread flaws in the management of sheriff's overtime.

OCFA says it manages overtime opportunities through computer scheduling software that helps them to spread the shifts equitably and still allow for effective coverage of training, sick days and vacation.

Unlike the Sheriff's department, where lower ranking deputies earn most of the overtime, captains ? including those in administrative slots ? are the big earners at the OCFA. Other high ranking officials, such as battalion chiefs, also get overtime.

In 2008, captains earned on average more than $43,000 in overtime, compared to an average of $25,000 earned by firefighters. Engineers averaged $42,000 in overtime.

In 2008, four captains and four engineers were able to boost their salaries over $200,000 through overtime.

OCFA's top overtime earner over the past six years has been Fire Captain Robert Hutnyan, who does training for the agency and has earned more than $662,626 in overtime since 2003.

Last year, Hutnyan earned $107,821 in overtime. Hutnyan declined to be interviewed by The Register.

Kerr, the union president, earned more than $40,000 in overtime during 2008 despite the fact that he's on a union leave. Kerr said his leave allows him to focus on lobbying on behalf of OCFA, but he still puts in for overtime shifts.

OCFA pays 70 percent of Kerr's salary and the union pays 30 percent. At the sheriff's department, the union covers 100 percent of their labor leader's pay.

Fire officials say the union boss is a good deal for taxpayers because Kerr has been helpful in securing legislation from Sacramento and helped negotiate a solution to the agency's $66 million unfunded liability for retiree medical benefits.

But Campbell says those kinds of work schedules ? people earning overtime when they haven't already worked a 40-hour week ? make him uncomfortable.

"That's not what the federal requirement is, but it's what we've allowed," Campbell said. "We've got to correct that and we have to address that when we next reopen the (bargaining) agreements."

 

First

Lifer
Jun 3, 2002
10,518
271
136
Uh, benefits are the least of your troubles (or this nation's troubles) when you're consistently risking your life by diving into burning buildings. What's the alternative, fewer firefighters and more burned down homes resulting in higher insurance premiums? Guess that's great for scumy insurance companies, not so great for the middle class American.
 

Hacp

Lifer
Jun 8, 2005
13,923
1
81
Training a firefighter rivals that of a doctor? Um,no. You can hire some random guy off the street who didn't go to college, train him for 2 years, and he'll be a full fledged firefighter. Now if the same guy spends the same amount of time training for neurosurgery, well lets just say that I wouldn't want to be his patient.
 

Hacp

Lifer
Jun 8, 2005
13,923
1
81
Originally posted by: Evan
Uh, benefits are the least of your troubles (or this nation's troubles) when you're consistently risking your life by diving into burning buildings. What's the alternative, fewer firefighters and more burned down homes resulting in higher insurance premiums? Guess that's great for scumy insurance companies, not so great for the middle class American.
You can hire competent firefighters for less than 120k a year. In fact, gifting firefighters 120k will actually reduce the amount of firefighters. For a job that requires almost no education, he should be making 40k with healthcare tops.

In fact, I know a few Iraq veterans who've been trying without any luck to get a job at the fire department. They'd be willing to work for 40k.
 

First

Lifer
Jun 3, 2002
10,518
271
136
Originally posted by: Hacp
Originally posted by: Evan
Uh, benefits are the least of your troubles (or this nation's troubles) when you're consistently risking your life by diving into burning buildings. What's the alternative, fewer firefighters and more burned down homes resulting in higher insurance premiums? Guess that's great for scumy insurance companies, not so great for the middle class American.
You can hire competent firefighters for less than 120k a year. In fact, gifting firefighters 120k will actually reduce the amount of firefighters. For a job that requires almost no education, he should be making 40k with healthcare tops.

In fact, I know a few Iraq veterans who've been trying without any luck to get a job at the fire department. They'd be willing to work for 40k.
No one can help you if you think firefighting doesn't require almost any education. And average firefighters isn't getting paid 120K unless you're including benefits and overtime, in which case you'd have to do the same for private sector jobs, and since there's no such thing as a private sector firefighting it's hard to compare the huge risk premium involved with entering burning buildings daily. Especially when you have the option of not being forced to work OT with most private jobs. Moronic to argue otherwise really. It's not particle physics certainly, which requires essentially a decade of education, but physicists aren't exactly putting their lives on the line in research labs.

And I know of a couple Navy vets who had no trouble getting firefighting jobs. It varies by location and need as with most any job.
 

fisheerman

Senior member
Oct 25, 2006
733
0
0
And they say the unions didn't take down the auto industry?

At this rate it looks like the fire union is going to take down the OC..............

120k for a fireman ..geez they have serious issues
 

Fingolfin269

Lifer
Feb 28, 2003
17,948
31
91
Originally posted by: fisheerman
And they say the unions didn't take down the auto industry?

At this rate it looks like the fire union is going to take down the OC..............

120k for a fireman ..geez they have serious issues
Yup because fire fighting is something any moron can do effectively.
 

smack Down

Diamond Member
Sep 10, 2005
4,507
0
0
Time to use the Reagen solution to the FAA union. Fire them all and black list them. Then hire new firefighters for 1/4 the costs.
 

smack Down

Diamond Member
Sep 10, 2005
4,507
0
0
Originally posted by: Fingolfin269
Originally posted by: fisheerman
And they say the unions didn't take down the auto industry?

At this rate it looks like the fire union is going to take down the OC..............

120k for a fireman ..geez they have serious issues
Yup because fire fighting is something any moron can do effectively.
What you think it take a particularly skill set to point a hose at the fire?
 

fisheerman

Senior member
Oct 25, 2006
733
0
0
Originally posted by: Fingolfin269
Originally posted by: fisheerman
And they say the unions didn't take down the auto industry?

At this rate it looks like the fire union is going to take down the OC..............

120k for a fireman ..geez they have serious issues
Yup because fire fighting is something any moron can do effectively.

That wasn't my point but you have to admit that this level of compensation is bordering on obsurd. If I was a voter in the OC I would be furious to see this.


 

Fear No Evil

Diamond Member
Nov 14, 2008
5,922
0
0
I think firefighters require bravery and the ability to work as a team more than mental skills. Thats not to say they don't require brains as well to know how to not get themselves or others killed, but a lot of that would come from a team leader that is strong and can tell people what to do.

Just because a job is dangerous doesn't mean it pays a lot. Otherwise we would be paying our troops in Iraq MUCH more than we are. And the left seems to like to point out for our troops that only stupid people join the military - So I am surprised that they seem to think Firefighters are like brain surgeons.
 
Nov 30, 2006
15,456
389
121
Originally posted by: Fingolfin269
Originally posted by: fisheerman
And they say the unions didn't take down the auto industry?

At this rate it looks like the fire union is going to take down the OC..............

120k for a fireman ..geez they have serious issues
Yup because fire fighting is something any moron can do effectively.
There's alot more to fire fighting that you can imagine. It's not rocket science for entry level positions, but leadership positions require a ton of education.
 

Strk

Lifer
Nov 23, 2003
10,198
4
76
Originally posted by: Evan
Originally posted by: Hacp
Originally posted by: Evan
Uh, benefits are the least of your troubles (or this nation's troubles) when you're consistently risking your life by diving into burning buildings. What's the alternative, fewer firefighters and more burned down homes resulting in higher insurance premiums? Guess that's great for scumy insurance companies, not so great for the middle class American.
You can hire competent firefighters for less than 120k a year. In fact, gifting firefighters 120k will actually reduce the amount of firefighters. For a job that requires almost no education, he should be making 40k with healthcare tops.

In fact, I know a few Iraq veterans who've been trying without any luck to get a job at the fire department. They'd be willing to work for 40k.
No one can help you if you think firefighting doesn't require almost any education. And average firefighters isn't getting paid 120K unless you're including benefits and overtime, in which case you'd have to do the same for private sector jobs, and since there's no such thing as a private sector firefighting it's hard to compare the huge risk premium involved with entering burning buildings daily. Especially when you have the option of not being forced to work OT with most private jobs. Moronic to argue otherwise really. It's not particle physics certainly, which requires essentially a decade of education, but physicists aren't exactly putting their lives on the line in research labs.

And I know of a couple Navy vets who had no trouble getting firefighting jobs. It varies by location and need as with most any job.
And not to forget that most firefighters are only pulling in around $40-50k depending on the area.

 

Mxylplyx

Diamond Member
Mar 21, 2007
4,197
100
106
California is heading towards a cliff. No matter how much reverance or respect you have for firefighters, 120K a year is absurd for anyone but the most senior officials in a large department.
 

marincounty

Diamond Member
Nov 16, 2005
3,227
5
76
I've been talking about this for a while. Police and Fire salaries and pensions are bankrupting California. Google the Vallejo Bankruptcy. Firemen making $200K.
 

JS80

Lifer
Oct 24, 2005
26,260
4
81
Good, I'm happy to see this, it's definitely worth increasing firefighters and all government workers salaries at an unsustainable rate. the faster we burn the cash the faster we can file BK and fundamentally change the system for the better. let them shoot themselves in the foot for short term gains.
 

Jaskalas

Lifer
Jun 23, 2004
30,111
3,649
126
Got to love California's dream world. Very soon this peachy little bubble will be considered history as bankruptcy sets in.
 

iGas

Diamond Member
Feb 7, 2009
6,240
1
0

I don't know where you guys live but here in my city, firefighter salaries are among the highest in Canada.

A fire chief that I know recently retired 5 years ago with over 35 years of service was making 70K a year, and his retirement is just under 50K per anum.

They aren't that well pay as many leads you to believe.
 

dainthomas

Lifer
Dec 7, 2004
13,855
2,123
126
Originally posted by: smack Down
Originally posted by: Fingolfin269
Originally posted by: fisheerman
And they say the unions didn't take down the auto industry?

At this rate it looks like the fire union is going to take down the OC..............

120k for a fireman ..geez they have serious issues
Yup because fire fighting is something any moron can do effectively.
What you think it take a particularly skill set to point a hose at the fire?
Why don't you point a hose at the next class B fire you come across and then get back to us on how that worked out for you. Make sure the nurse types for you so your skin doesn't peel off all over the keyboard. Nasty!

 

OCGuy

Lifer
Jul 12, 2000
27,220
26
91
I routinely do loans for Orange County cops and firefighters. Lets just say $80K for firefighters, and $110k for police is not uncommon.

 

Hacp

Lifer
Jun 8, 2005
13,923
1
81
Originally posted by: Evan
Originally posted by: Hacp
Originally posted by: Evan
Uh, benefits are the least of your troubles (or this nation's troubles) when you're consistently risking your life by diving into burning buildings. What's the alternative, fewer firefighters and more burned down homes resulting in higher insurance premiums? Guess that's great for scumy insurance companies, not so great for the middle class American.
You can hire competent firefighters for less than 120k a year. In fact, gifting firefighters 120k will actually reduce the amount of firefighters. For a job that requires almost no education, he should be making 40k with healthcare tops.

In fact, I know a few Iraq veterans who've been trying without any luck to get a job at the fire department. They'd be willing to work for 40k.
No one can help you if you think firefighting doesn't require almost any education. And average firefighters isn't getting paid 120K unless you're including benefits and overtime, in which case you'd have to do the same for private sector jobs, and since there's no such thing as a private sector firefighting it's hard to compare the huge risk premium involved with entering burning buildings daily. Especially when you have the option of not being forced to work OT with most private jobs. Moronic to argue otherwise really. It's not particle physics certainly, which requires essentially a decade of education, but physicists aren't exactly putting their lives on the line in research labs.

And I know of a couple Navy vets who had no trouble getting firefighting jobs. It varies by location and need as with most any job.
In the town, the median wage with overtime was 130k. This job requires very little education. Basically, anyone can go in there with a high school degree, train for a few years, then become a figherfighter. I'm sure plenty of highly qualified individuals will be willing to work for 40k. Unions however, make that dream impossible. They keep raising base salary and force the city to pay more and more for the old and fat firefighters, while the young and enthusiastic potential recruits are stuck at Mcdonalds.

Fatality rates look pretty dececnt.

http://www.laurelvfd.org/Firefighting_paper.htm
 

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