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'Overtime Culture' Pays Off for Firefighters

Some in L.A. county and city departments doubled their pay last year. Officials say new hires would prove even more expensive. But experts and a review of the numbers suggest otherwise.

May 28, 1996|JEFF BRAZIL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Firefighters in Los Angeles almost never quit their jobs, and it's not difficult to see why.

Nowhere else do firefighters earn as much overtime as in the city and county departments, many doubling salaries already among the profession's highest. Here, overtime pay has become a built-in perk--a "morale booster," in the words of department higher-ups--as much a part of the firehouse culture as crimson-red pumpers.

Take Alan C. Naeole. He made nearly as much money last year as the chief justice of the United States. Naeole, a city firefighter-paramedic, earned about $58,000 in base salary--and pocketed $102,945 in overtime.

City firefighter-paramedic James C. Lowe, coming in close behind, amassed $86,316 in overtime, raising his total salary to roughly $146,000.

Then there's city firefighter Donn D. Thompson. His overtime during the last three years: $219,694.

So well-traveled is Los Angeles' reputation for paycheck generosity that one Houston fire official had this to say: "We've all heard about what they have going there. I don't know of any other department that has it quite that lucrative."

Last year, even though there were no cataclysmic disasters, overtime costs for the county and city fire departments soared to a record of nearly $128 million. That comes to about $14,600 every hour, every day, every week. Over the last three years, taxpayers spent a budget-wrenching $349 million on firefighter overtime.

This, at a time when the county has suffered a fiscal meltdown and city firefighters have railed against proposed cuts in their budget.

"It's a hell of a racket," said Steve B. Frates, a senior researcher at Claremont McKenna College. Frates, who just completed a five-month study of the county government's salaries, found that the Fire Department has no peer. "The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff makes less than some of these firefighters do."

Surprisingly, most of this money is not being used for fires or other emergencies. Instead, most of it goes for replacing those who are out because of vacations, holidays, injuries, training, illnesses or personal leaves. Millions more go to firefighters on special assignments, such as in-house training and evaluation programs.

What's more, the pay is so good that it has become "a disincentive to retirement," said city Fire Chief William R. Bamattre. "Guys don't want to leave." Consequently, heavier costs are heaped onto taxpayers because new firefighters could be hired for far less.

Although fire officials acknowledge that the amounts seem alarming, they say that hiring more firefighters to ease the overtime crunch ultimately would be more expensive. But interviews with dozens of experts and an examination of the numbers suggest that the issue may not be as clear-cut.

"There's certainly some legitimate questions," said consultant William Gay, who scrutinized the city Fire Department's operations last year at the request of Mayor Richard Riordan's office.

"But what happens is . . . the Fire Department has a vested interest in not looking at this system with a great deal of detail," Gay said. "When you pull down $165,000 a year plus benefits as a paramedic, you don't want somebody looking at that too much."

Following inquiries by The Times, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman two weeks ago informed the Board of Supervisors in a letter that the department had retained a consulting firm "to conduct a comprehensive study of all aspects of Fire Department overtime." Freeman said in an interview that he wants to "get a handle on just how much overtime there is and where it's going."

Where it has gone is into the pockets of firefighters, who have grown accustomed to the niceties that tens of thousands of extra dollars a year can bring. There's that vacation home. Or the kid's college fund. Or feathering the retirement nest egg.

"It's a little extra bonus for the guys," said retired city firefighter Jon W. Jacobsmeyer. "It gets them a new boat on the river and a new truck every year."

It's no wonder firefighters so covet their time-and-a-half. Whenever questions have been raised, the response has been swift.

Not long ago the city had a "pool" of 140 firefighters to fill in for daily absences at stations around the city. They were paid regular wages. But that didn't sit well with the troops, who "weren't happy about it because it really ate into their overtime," recalled Dennis W. Kemper, chief management analyst for the city Fire Department. In the end, the department pulled the plug on the pool, contending that it would be cheaper to use overtime than to staff a pool.

With potent unions and public popularity behind them, fire officials have a way of turning the tables, transforming any query about reducing overtime and staffing into a debate about public safety.

"Anything with the Fire Department, there's always the fear that the union will mount a public relations campaign," said one county official who has worked on public safety issues.

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