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.
Union leaders say the overtime situation is a result of the refusal to hire enough staff. "We did not come up with this system," said Kenneth Buzzell, president of Firefighters Local 1012, the union that covers the city department. He added that firefighters don't like attention drawn to overtime because "there is always an implication that something's amiss."
On average, sworn employees of the county Fire Department made more than $25,000 in overtime last year, by far the highest of any major metropolitan force in the United States. At the top of the county heap: firefighter-paramedic Reynoldo Wilson, who earned $65,069 in overtime to supplement an estimated $68,000 in base pay.
In the city Fire Department, overtime averaged $19,000 last year.
By comparison, New York City firefighters averaged $6,500.
Most firefighters at the top of the overtime list declined to be interviewed for this story. Those who consented emphasized that they worked extremely hard for their money, sometimes at great personal risk.
"We don't look at this as a money train," said Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Lawrence Collins. He made $61,259 in overtime last year for a total annual salary of more than $138,000. "This doesn't make up for the nightmares, the cold sweats and the psychologists' visits," said Collins, a decorated member of the department's special operations division.
Collins, who pioneered the department's swift-water rescue tactics after nearly drowning during a rescue in the early 1980s, estimated he has spent thousands of dollars of his own money and volunteered many hours to learn and do his job correctly. "The citizens are getting a good deal," he said. "I feel like I earned my keep."
At the same time, he said, "I'm not saying it's not an issue. I'm not saying there aren't legitimate questions about this."
* Nearly 80% of the county's and city's firefighters collected at least $10,000 in overtime last year. More than 3,000 of them collected more than $20,000. And more than 400 firefighters took home $40,000 or more, doubling the minimum salary for firefighters.
* Overtime in the city and county departments consumes about 22% and 17% of their respective budgets, more than twice as much as anywhere else. Budget experts around the nation say this fact alone suggests that Los Angeles officials could better manage their money and staffs. The city department has an annual budget of $261 million, the county department's is $410 million.
* Formulas used by the county and city to determine whether paying overtime is cheaper than hiring more firefighters have been called flawed and misleading. It was not until last week, in response to questions by The Times, that the county even compared the actual costs, bolstering suspicions that there has been little desire to rethink the overtime system.
* One major reason overtime is so high is that city and county ladder trucks are staffed at higher levels than almost anywhere in the country. Although national firefighting organizations recommend four firefighters per truck, Los Angeles employs a system that requires six. Trimming the number by one could save taxpayers millions of dollars a year; officials in many big cities say they have done so without sacrificing safety. "You don't need six on a truck," said Chicago Deputy Fire Commissioner Patrick W. Kehoe, whose department uses five. "That's way high."
* Beyond issues of money are concerns about safety. City firefighters can earn extravagant overtime sums by signing up for as many extra days as they can string together. To avoid fatigue, the vast majority of U.S. departments restrict the number of hours a firefighter can work. In some cases, Los Angeles city firefighters worked 10 or more consecutive days and nights. That much time on the clock, experts say, could dull a firefighter's reflexes and thinking. "And that's when mistakes happen," said Carl Holmes, a management consultant for fire departments.
Added one retired Los Angeles fire official: "There's a point at which you start to burn out and you're no good to anybody."
How Much Is Too Much?
Clearly, some level of overtime seems necessary. No one would want someone to call it quits in the middle of a blaze because the shift had ended--least of all firefighters, who remain among the most assiduous of public servants.
Los Angeles firefighters enjoy a special reputation as being among the elite, the best-trained in the country.
And although studies show that the lion's share of a firefighter's time is spent in the station, the job can be dangerous and the lifestyle disruptive.
Yet in an era of too few books in libraries and not enough public health nurses, there are limits to the public's goodwill, say officials in Los Angeles and throughout the nation who have seen overtime budgets go through the roof.
"In a time when the number of fires continues to decrease, our overtime is off the charts," said Thomas M. Glavin, a city councilman in Providence, R.I. "You want to give people the protection they need. But you also have a responsibility to not let the public get taken to the cleaners."
While Los Angeles county and city departments insist that every dollar of overtime is necessary for public safety, the rationale, in some instances, seems open to debate.
Consider the case of city fire Capt. Carl A. Butler. To supplement his $72,000 base salary last year, he earned $59,992 in overtime. Most of it came from developing a program to better evaluate firefighters' abilities to use power tools, ladders and hoses. From January 1993 to December 1995, Butler made $155,143 beyond his base salary.
A 27-year veteran cited for bravery during the 1992 riots, Butler said he spent more than $7,000 of his own money to buy a computer and other materials. "I loved what I was doing. That was the driving force. It was not greed," he said.
Although his project enables the city to better track firefighters' skills, the department has had an effective equipment evaluation program in place for years, acknowledged Bamattre. Still, the chief says Butler's program was worth the money.
Joel Fox, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., doesn't quarrel with the quality of such a program. But he questions the necessity of paying for it at time-and-a-half.
"That kind of program shouldn't be considered 'special' and paid for with overtime," said Fox, vice chairman of the county's blue-ribbon budget commission, which presented a series of cost-saving recommendations to the Board of Supervisors this month. "It seems like it should be a normal part of the job."
To corral overtime costs, many departments require that government agencies outside the fire department approve such projects. Other cities also insist that, when possible, training be scheduled to avoid requiring overtime.
"That makes sense," said a Los Angeles County official knowledgeable about public safety issues. "I would question whether we could cut down a substantial amount of overtime expense just by redoing our work assignments."
For years, fire officials in Los Angeles have argued that it's better for taxpayers to pay overtime than to hire new firefighters. This conclusion has been based on formulas using a firefighter's salary and benefits versus overtime costs. But budgeting experts and consultants who reviewed the numbers say they are misleading.
Here's why: When computing the cost of hiring a full-time firefighter, the county and city have used a veteran's base salary instead of a rookie's.
For example, in 1992 the city Fire Department said a firefighter's base salary would be about $50,700. In reality, it would have been closer to $37,000. There also would have been an $8,000 difference in the cost of benefits. This worked to inflate the potential cost of hiring someone.
The cost savings could be even more substantial in the county Fire Department, where firefighter benefits have been running about 12% less than in the city.
Eric D. Webber, administrative deputy director of the county Fire Department, acknowledged that his agency previously had not taken into account the substantial differences in salaries and benefits for veteran and newer firefighters.
But he called it "simplistic" and "theoretical" to use a new recruit's pay to calculate whether hiring is cheaper than paying overtime. Webber ticked off several variables that would affect the equation, among them the fact that firefighter salaries escalate quickly and that the department could not hire and train at once the nearly 650 firefighters needed to eliminate most of the overtime.
Fox of the taxpayers' association said no one expects the county to mass-hire 600 firefighters. But, he said, it's worth investigating whether the county could, at least, begin the process of hiring enough to whittle overtime costs.
"We know this: Under the current system, the savings will never occur," Fox said.
Last Thursday, weeks after The Times first raised questions about possible problems with the county's calculations, Chief Freeman said the department had put together some rough numbers. They showed that, although money could be saved for about four years by hiring new firefighters, it later could be more expensive than paying overtime because of rising salaries and benefits.
As for the city Fire Department, budget expert Kemper also acknowledged that when one adjusts for veteran and rookie salary differences and excludes one-time training costs, it would be more economical for the "first few years." But after that, he and the county chief agree, the efficiency pendulum would swing the other way.
Kemper also acknowledged that he is taken aback by the heft of the city's overtime cost--$58.6 million last year. "I look at that figure at budget time and think, 'Wow, that's a lot of money.' But I'm pretty convinced it's the best way to go."
No Place Compares
Los Angeles fire officials, defending their system, say the best measure of cost-efficiency is to determine how much it costs to fill one sworn position for a year.
But even by that gauge, Los Angeles fared poorly: While it costs an average of roughly $330,000 to fund a sworn position in the county and $325,000 in the city, it costs about $290,000 in New York City.
No other big city comes close to the amount being paid here.
Told of this, Los Angeles fire officials backpedaled. They said department-to-department comparisons are risky because of differences in budgeting methods and community characteristics.
When one compares another key statistic--how much of a fire department's budget is eaten up by overtime--Los Angeles doesn't stack up well, either.
The county and city departments devote roughly 20% of their budgets--one dollar in five--to overtime. The next closest: New York City at 9%.
"Holy smokes!" said Phoenix City Auditor Jim A. Flanagan, when told how much money Los Angeles earmarks for overtime.
"There's always cost-saving opportunities when a number gets that high up into the millions," said Flanagan, whose department's cost-efficiency is recognized nationally. "If you're using that much overtime, you probably ought to be doing something different with your staffing and you probably ought to be doing some permanent hiring."
When officials in Buffalo, N.Y., noted escalating overtime in their fire department, the city staff spent 18 months studying the problem. The upshot: It was 41.7% cheaper to hire new firefighters than to dole out overtime. One reason, Buffalo officials discovered, was that most of their firefighters were veterans and had been drawing top-step salaries--much like their colleagues in Los Angeles.
"We focused on what were the variables that impacted overtime and tried to figure out how we could get a handle on those costs," said James B. Milroy, the city's director of budget and management. "Overtime is not supposed to become a regular part of your operation."
Buffalo officials, like their counterparts in Providence and Houston, have found that overtime also can be cut by restricting the number of firefighters from the same station who can be off duty at once, reducing the need to hire fill-ins.
"People were being allowed to take vacation pretty much whenever they wanted it," Milroy said. "We had huge peaks around hunting season and Christmas, so we tried to level it out."
Still other departments, such as those in Chicago and Sacramento County, have sliced overtime through such innovations as easing staffing requirements.
Chicago has reduced daily staff needs on as many as 30 of its 160-plus trucks and engines, potentially saving taxpayers millions a year.
"It's a financial issue," said Deputy Fire Commissioner Kehoe. "About every city in the country is looking to us, including New York, because they're in a cash crunch, too."
With tight budgets becoming a way of bureaucratic life, even Los Angeles budget analyst Kemper acknowledges that the days of big-money overtime may be numbered.
"Ultimately," he said, "we'll have to cut it down."
In the meantime, said fire department resource management expert Michael Mount, Los Angeles will continue using overtime "in a way that nobody else does."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Top of the Pay Ladder
Firefighters in Los Angeles are taking home more overtime pay than firefighters anywhere else in the nation--about $128 million in all last year. Here, based on city and county records, are the men at the top.
Los Angeles city and county firefighters with 10 highest overtime totals (city is 1995; county is fiscal 1994-95)
Total Name Overtime Compensation* Alan C. Naeole $102,945 $161,000 James C. Lowe $86,316 $146,000 Donn D. Thompson $70,217 $128,000 Richard H. McClure $68,866 $130,000 Reynoldo Wilson $65,069 $133,000 Donald F. Lassig $65,017 $142,000 John J. Patchett $63,700 $120,000 Lenko Spaleta $61,466 $126,000 Russel S. Arentzoff $61,330 $116,000 Lawrence R. Collins $61,259 $138,000
Name Position Alan C. Naeole City Firefighter/Paramedic James C. Lowe City Firefighter/Paramedic Donn D. Thompson City Firefighter/Paramedic Richard H. McClure City Firefighter/Paramedic Reynoldo Wilson County Firefighter/Paramedic Donald F. Lassig County Captain John J. Patchett City Firefighter Lenko Spaleta County Firefighter Russel S. Arentzoff City Firefighter Lawrence R. Collins County Captain
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Firefighter Overtime: L.A. vs. N.Y.
While New York City spends more on overall firefighter overtime, Los Angeles firefighters earn far more per capita.
* ANNUAL OVERTIME PER UNIFORMED EMPLOYEE
County of Los Angeles: $25,000
City of Los Angeles: $19,000
New York City: $6,500
* BUDGET BREAKDOWNS
A look at the percent of firefighting budgets that is spent on overtime pay in selected municipalities:
City of Los Angeles: 22%
County of Los Angeles: 17%
New York City: 9%
Orange County: 7%
Notes: City of L.A. based on 1995 figures. L.A. County based on fiscal 1994-95. Figures are rounded off.