In a perfect world, staffing decisions — particularly whether to continue with overtime or hire new — would be easily reached; however, in a world with budgetary concerns and only a finite amount of time humans can operate at their best, tough decisions are required based on the information available and what a city or town can afford. Across the country, cities and fire departments are facing this age-old conundrum: do we continue with overtime, or do we hire new?
In 2016, Elgin, Ill., determined paying overtime was saving the city 15 to 20 percent in the long run — after factoring in legacy costs like insurance and pensions. Meanwhile on the West Coast, an auditor found overtime was no longer a cheaper option in San Diego, Calif., as it found one firefighter had been paid $210,500 in overtime in 2014; the city’s fire department has instead, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune, begun to slowly train and hire more staff .
Similarly, the Sacramento Fire Department, also in California, spent more than $13 million on overtime in 2015, in addition to $44 million in regular pay. City auditor Jorge Oseguera, in an article by The Sacramento Bee, reported two employees alone each worked more than 6,000 hours, which amounted to “almost 70 percent of the time they are living and breathing.” With increased funding post-recession, the city has added about 60 firefighters and plans to hire 60 more this summer, returning the department to full staff .
While city responses vary based on individual circumstances, one thing both sides of the debate can agree on is the importance of maintaining safe staffing levels not only for employees’ sake, but also for the city and its residents.
“A NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) study measured various outcomes to different fire events and made recommendations to get to victims quickly and safely,” said Pat Devaney, president of the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois, an association dedicated to education and legislature advocacy for its members.
The study utilized scientific methods to investigate “the effect of varying crew size, first apparatus arrival time and response time on firefighter safety, overall task completion and interior residential tenability using realist residential fires.” It was the first of its kind and used an array of stakeholders and high-caliber technical experts to provide results and conclusions that the National Fire Protection Association 1710 Technical Committee could use to develop industry deployment standards.
Prior to the study, Devaney said, “The general approach to staffing was arbitrary.”
With these standards available, fire agencies and their towns and cities can better balance staffing decisions based on increasing the safety of their citizens and fire service members. Of course, town and city council members also have to maintain budgets, which leads to decisions that vary from local jurisdiction to local jurisdiction when vacancies arise. Devaney noted both options — new hires and overtime — offer perks and downsides.
“When relying on overtime too regularly, the safety factor becomes involved,” Devaney said, adding, “When you have a firefighter who’s been up all night at an incident, do you want them on the scene? They could have been up for 48 hours and not slept.” He stressed the need for staffing at regular intervals. “You want to make sure they are at their best.”
There is also another human component beyond fatigue to consider, with Devaney saying fire service professionals should be allowed to spend adequate time with their families, too. Still, when it comes to overtime, “members are willing,” Devaney said; however, he cautioned overtime might not be a long-term solution.
State legislation, however, might make new hires more attractive to cities and towns. Devaney explained in Illinois the General Assembly created a new tier of pension benefits for public safety employees in Illinois hired after Jan. 1, 2011, that lowers employment and pension costs.
Devaney said, “Changes in legislation have helped employers overcome hesitation to hire new and to fill vacancies.”
When it comes to actually making staffing decisions, Devaney recommended taking a comprehensive view of the situation from the mathematics, overall impact in the workplace and employees in addition to unintended consequences, such as additional accrued leave. He noted this approach often brings a better outcome.
Opportunities waiting to be snagged
Grants can be one avenue to alleviate hiring and retention woes. The Department of Homeland Security’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant in particular is sought by departments across the country to assist with funding staffing for a finite period of time.
“We had a definite need,” Fire Chief Gary Ludwig, with the Champaign Fire Department in Illinois, said, noting his department had experienced operational shortcomings when it came to meeting national response time standards due to being short on personnel. This need led the department to seek out the SAFER grant. “It was an excellent opportunity for us.”
The fire department documented its need and pressed its case, with Ludwig commenting, “We won the day.”
SAFER funds — $1.3 million total — which were awarded in 2016, will allow the department to maintain safe staffing levels for its Ladder 164 with the addition of six firefighters this year. The funds will last for two years, with the department and city of Champaign in the interim formulating a continuity plan to keep the firefighters after the grant period without reducing city services. As it was, whenever the station was short-staffed, firefighters were called back on mandatory overtime. This, over several years, cost the department an additional minimum of $300,000.
Other departments across the country have also benefited from the SAFER grant and other grants available in the fire service. Some departments, for various reasons, are not pursuing grants, which have gotten very competitive in recent years; however, with a solid plan and clearly outlined need, grant success could be in the wings.
View the NIST’s “Report on Residential Fireground Field Experiments here: www.nist.gov/sites/default/files/documents/el/fire_research/Report-on-ResidentialFireground-Field-Experiments.pdf. To learn more about the SAFER grant, visit www.fema.gov/staffing-adequate fire-emergency-response-grants.