Firefighters' overtime issue not unique to Pittsburgh
By Bob Bauder
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012, 10:22 p.m.
The City of Pittsburgh faces a delicate balancing act in protecting the public while keeping costs down — an issue brought to light by a scathing audit of firefighters' overtime pay.
Pittsburgh isn't alone, however. From coast to coast, cash-strapped cities are struggling with the problem.
Maurice Luque, a spokesman for the San Diego Fire and Rescue Department, said his city is hiring after years of budget-cutting.
“It's cheaper by about 16 percent to use existing crews to fill staffing needs and pay overtime than (to hire) a new employee,” Luque said. “For years, we were just running over budget on overtime because we weren't given enough money to begin with.”
Pittsburgh hasn't determined whether it is cheaper to pay millions in overtime annually or hire firefighters, according to Henry Sciortino, executive director of the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, one of the city's two state-appointed fiscal oversight agencies. City Council members argue that the city compromises public safety by leaving Fire Bureau positions unfilled.
Controller Michael Lamb said in his audit, released last week, that overtime is “out of control” and that the city must better manage its public safety budget.
Overtime for firefighters was $1.4 million over budget in 2011, accounting for 23 percent of the bureau's expenditures, the audit found. Overtime for all city employees totaled about $33 million, or about 17 percent of payroll that year. Most of the overtime went to police, fire and emergency medical services, the audit said.
San Diego and Philadelphia in recent years cut costs with “rolling brown-outs,” taking fire companies temporarily out of service. Philadelphia expects to save $3.8 million in overtime this year through brown-outs, according to the fire department.
San Diego, though, stopped brown-outs this year after several high-profile fatalities, which included a boy who choked to death on a gum ball at his home while a nearby fire company was covering for a browned-out company.
Pittsburgh hasn't resorted to brown-outs to cut costs, but Lamb urged the city to reduce overtime by renegotiating minimum staffing levels with the union that require 163 firefighters to be on duty at all times.
Darrin Kelly, a trustee with the International Association of Firefighters Local 1, said minimum staffing reduces firefighter injuries and permits faster responses.
“Fire deployment is not just about people per square foot,” he said. “You're not just talking people. You're talking daytime population, high hazard areas, universities, hospitals, bridges, rivers, climate, narrow streets. ... You have to talk about all those things when you talk about staffing.”
Public Safety Director Michael Huss said staffing is based on a National Fire Protection Agency recommendation of having at least four firefighters on an engine, pumper or ladder truck. He noted the city cut more than 100 fire positions and closed six fire stations since 2005, saving “tens of millions.”
“Have the controller identify what neighborhood fire stations he wants to close and how many firefighters he wants to cut, and we'll take a look at it,” Huss said in an email.
Pittsburgh has more firefighters per resident (one for every 499) than New York City (one for 749), Philadelphia (one for 771) and Los Angeles (one for 1,100), according to a report compiled by Kat Thomson, a former firefighter who consults for the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, a union representing about 2,400 officers in the New York Fire Department.
Pittsburgh ranked eighth in personnel among the nation's 40 largest cities, according to the report, and first in the number of engines per 10,000 people and fire stations per 50,000 residents.
Thomson said cities base staffing on factors such as the age of buildings, building types and risks to firefighters. A city's budget and union contract come into play.
More than dollars and cents are at stake, a report from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg shows.
Last year, New York cut personnel on 60 companies covering some of the most fire-prone areas, from five firefighters per engine to four. Firefighter burns increased in 2011 by 45 percent and injuries by 3 percent over 2010.
The city has not established a correlation between budget cuts and injuries, but firefighters suspect it's a contributing factor, according to Thomson.
“What is an adequate staffing level? That's the golden question, and we're facing this question in New York City,” Thomson said. “It's not clear-cut, ever.”
Lamb said he wants Pittsburgh to start talking about the best way to staff the Fire Bureau.
“You look at our population and the number of firefighters compared to other cities — we always end up high up on those lists,” he said.
Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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