Councilmember Toni Atkins raised an excellent point at a recent impasse hearing on Wednesday, April 18, regarding firefighter salary and benefits. She said that many people state that the powerful firefighter’s union influences council members. She wondered why, if the firefighter’s union is so powerful, they are ranked last at No. 24 in the mayor’s own commissioned Buck Survey on salary and benefits?

Wouldn’t their salary and benefits be more towards the top of the survey than at the very bottom, she asked? Councilmember Atkins’ question is one that others should be asking too, because nothing is further from the truth. Why would the mayor commission a study on comparable salary and benefits for firefighters and then totally disregard the results? The reason the firefighters requested to do a joint survey was to find out how we compare with other large cities in the state. The intent of the survey was to work together in reviewing the results and meet and confer on their implications.

The city is in breech of contract regarding this and other surveys, as well as with the meet-and-confer process itself. Firefighters are not asking to be at the top of the cities on the survey. They are only asking to be paid and benefited at the median range of the 10 largest fire departments in the state. The mayor’s interpretation of market conditions and retention do not address the results of his own survey at all. We addressed this with the mayor’s negotiating team at several of our meet and confer sessions.

The answer we were given was that the city officials want to see more bleeding and exiting of firefighters before they are willing to address the situation. The police were ignored the past three years when they stated that people were leaving for other departments. You would think that a lesson was learned from this last debacle. Unfortunately, it sounds like they want to see a repeat performance.

The Fire Recruit Exam Process

The current fire recruit exam process had only 49 people sign up. The fire chief was advised to reopen and extend the process in an effort to get more people to sign up. During the extended sign up period, 2,045 people supposedly signed up. Those are numbers the city bolstered.

City personnel then went through the applications and found that 1,856 where actually qualified. The testing process only netted 1,358 people that sat for the exam process. It will be interesting to see how many applicants will score 90 percent to get into Category 1 interview requirement.

Overtime and the Black Hole

The Performance Institute, a private think tank fronted by Carl DeMaio, frequently speaks out against firefighters and other union workers. In their reports, only certain information that supports their thinking is presented.

For example, when questioning overtime pay for firefighters, a topic for which firefighters have tolerated a lot of negative misrepresented press coverage lately, why hasn’t the Performance Institute reported the total amount of money both state and federal governments have reimbursed to the city for firefighting services rendered in regards to overtime? There are basically two situations that cause overtime in the first place and the vast majority of overtime that is paid to firefighters is reimbursed by state and federal dollars directly to the city general fund. It does not go to the firefighter budget. Firefighters are routinely ordered to work additional 24-hour shifts throughout the year. This is because nothing has been done to neither hire the 500 firefighters nor build the 35 needed stations an independent accreditation study cited years ago. This is one of the three main types of overtime that exists.

The engine and ambulance at each station must be constantly staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days per year to meet the NFPA standard for response time of five minutes. If a firefighter becomes injured, sick, or takes vacation, another firefighter is called back to cover that position for an additional 24-hour shift. The advantage to having a well-trained firefighter cover these shifts is obvious.

It is important to note that firefighters work a 56-hour workweek without any overtime. This equals 2,912 hours worked each year. A person working a 40 hour workweek works 2,080 hours each year. Firefighters therefore work 832 more hours per year than the typical full time employee. Those that work additional 24-hour shifts are away from their families sometimes 11-18, 24-hour shifts per month instead of the typical 10-12 shifts monthly.

The second main type of overtime occurs when San Diego firefighters go on strike teams to assist other fire agencies in mitigating large brush fires that threaten lives and property. In these situations, firefighters can be gone days at a time. Also, many San Diego firefighters are members of the Urban Search and Rescue Task Force No. 8.

They assisted agencies in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina and in Oklahoma City during the federal building bombing. Anytime San Diego firefighters assist another agency, the city is reimbursed more than two and a half times for each individual’s hourly rate. This pays for the firefighter deployed as well as the firefighter’s replacement in his or her normal assignment.

There is also an intangible advantage with having our own USAR task force; they are stationed here and are available to protect the citizens of San Diego in the event of a weapon-of-mass-destruction incident, or from the threat of terrorism. That money is reimbursed in full to the city of San Diego from the state and/or federal government.

The money goes into the black hole, or general fund. None of the reimbursement money is ever credited back to the fire-rescue budget. It is only brought up in the context of firefighters earning over $100,000 due to overtime.

The third main type of overtime occurs for mandatory ongoing training and continuing education. There are no budgeting training officers like most other fire departments have. San Diego has to hire their off-duty personnel to fill these positions on an over-time basis. This gives the talking heads and the ATU (Anti-Union-Tribune) another story to run on firefighter and their overtime.

Managed Competition or the Lack Thereof?

Why was there a political commitment made to take the unions out of the medical insurance business? Why would the city want to stop a union from providing better medical benefits to their members for less than the city can?

What happened to managed competition? That seems to be a term only used when it’s convenient and advantageous for the city to do so. During our meet-and-confer process, we were told that PacifiCare Insurance had told the city that there would be no increase in premiums for 2007-2008, if the city could force the police and fire department members into their policy.

We were also told that without the police and fire departments on board, they would have to raise rates by 25 percent. The city never disclosed that there would actually be a seven-and-a-half percent reduction if they got police and fire in.

We found out that information after the POA police officer’s association voted to approve the city’s last and final proposal guaranteeing them a 9 percent salary increase. The city actually contacted Healthnet to get a quote as well. Since they have the demographics on the firefighters, they were able to provide a quote to the city. It was, however, more than what the firefighters are currently paying today. Hence, we are being forced into an insurance plan that provides less coverage for more money. That must be what managed competition is all about!

Firefighters and Their Retirement

The San Diego Union-Tribune, the only newspaper in town, continually prints false information regarding a firefighter’s retirement.

The U-T was written a letter from the SDCERS, San Diego City Employees Retirement System, confirming the maximum retirement percentage of 90 percent, as well as the employee’s contribution rate to the system. The U-T has continually chosen to misrepresent the facts, stating that firefighters are retiring at 140 percent of their pay. Yet, the maximum retirement is 90 percent. In truth, to even retire at that rate, a firefighter would have to come on at the unlikely age of 19 to retire at 90 percent of pay at age 50. The U-T also continues to lie about the contribution rate paid by firefighters for their retirement. Firefighters pay their 50 percent portion of the retirement contribution. Many cities like Chula Vista pay 100 percent of the employees’ pension contribution.

The Bottom Line

Firefighter candidates are no longer interested in working for the city of San Diego. Contrary to the comments made by the mayor’s spokesman, Fred Sainz, many agencies are already hiring lateral transfers, meaning firefighters do not have to start over from scratch and that existing firefighters would be tempted to leave. If San Diego opened up for lateral transfers, they would find that nobody would be interested or apply.

Our youngest and brightest firefighters, as well as our most trained, will leave in droves. The mayor’s negotiating team said that they want to see more people leave before they will believe we have a retention problem or agree to increased pay and benefits. It appears that by the end of this year, they will get their wish.

Frank De Clercq is the vice-president of the San Diego City Fire Fighters

Local 145 I.A.F.F. Agree with Frank? Disagree? Send a letter to the editor.

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