With Oklahoma City firefighter overtime in the millions, officials are trying to protect the city's dwindling revenue from going up in flames.
Despite a drop in fires, firefighters are busier than ever. But dead-end calls are tying up emergency equipment.
CreditsStories: John Estus & Bryan Dean
Editor: Michael Baker
Design: Todd Pendleton
Layout: Nick Tankersley
Flash pieces: Brian Mays
Meeting set to discuss Oklahoma City firefighters’ raises (updated Nov. 6, 2009) City council: Official to meet today with fire union boss over contract
Oklahoma City fire contract may come to a vote (Oct. 26, 2009) Officials on both sides call election a bad idea and pledge to continue negotiations
City to fight arbitrator's ruling (updated Sept. 16, 2009) - Firefighters group voted in favor of pact giving 2% raise
City fired up about firefighter overtime
Oklahoma City firefighters collected more than $7.3 million in overtime during the past year — more than the city is spending to build three new fire stations.
Working overtime boosted some firefighters' annual income by more than 20 percent, The Oklahoman found in a review of payroll data.
"We cannot keep this up forever," said Ward 4 Councilman Pete White. "It's a lot of money. It's especially a lot of money when every month our sales tax collections are down."
Oklahoma City Council members have grumbled for years about what some call excessive overtime paid out to firefighters at taxpayer expense. The budget crunch the city now faces has intensified those sentiments.
But for the most part, the city's hands are tied.
The firefighters' frequent time-and-a-half overtime payments are legally required by federal labor laws and the annual collective bargaining agreement between the city and firefighter union.
As a result, nearly every city firefighter collected overtime between July 2008 and July 2009. Firefighters received overtime pay regardless of whether they worked more than scheduled because their union contract guarantees regularly scheduled overtime.
Because overtime hours are part of their regular schedule, firefighters often collect overtime while on vacation or personal leave.
Ward 1 Councilman Gary Marrs, a former fire chief, said it's not uncommon for city officials to gripe about firefighters collecting overtime "while sitting on a beach somewhere."
"The kind of contract they have, you couldn't find it in the private sector," White said. "It's easy to ask: 'Why are we doing this? How did we get into a situation to where we're paying people for time they're not working?'"
Efforts by city officials nationwide to quash such overtime policies have failed because courts and arbitrators consistently uphold them. Many Oklahoma City officials, including Mayor Mick Cornett, said the policy is something that has "been forced" upon them.
Union officials disagree.
"We work under the federal labor laws, and that's it," said Gary Copeland, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 157, the local fire union.
Not your average overtime
Veteran firefighter Robert Willis earned an extra $22,188 this past fiscal year with overtime, bringing his gross pay up to $114,549, according to payroll data.
Fire officials said such situations are unique because most overtime payments are for regularly scheduled overtime, which the city can plan for in advance. But most overtime hours Willis worked were unscheduled overtime hours because he is a reserve fire dispatcher in addition to his duties as a firefighter, said Fire Chief Keith Bryant.Bryant must approve payments for all unscheduled overtime, but said he is seldom asked to do so."Our overtime is not out of control," Bryant said.
Fire department employees collected a median of $8,471 in overtime on top of their base salaries from July 2008 to July 2009.
Firefighters don't work typical 40-hour weeks, which means they fall under a different part of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act than most American workers.
Oklahoma City firefighters' union contract requires them to work nine 24-hour shifts per pay cycle, which comes out to 216 hours of work for every 27 days. That's 12 more hours per 27-day cycle than federal labor laws allow before overtime kicks in, Bryant said.
Most firefighters collected exactly 12 hours of overtime every pay cycle, according to the payroll analysis.
"It's an already-budgeted issue that the city prepares for all the time," Copeland said.
Other fire departments have similar schedules, Copeland and Bryant said.
Marrs said one way the city could reduce firefighter overtime costs is to ask the union to change the firefighters' schedule so it doesn't include regularly scheduled overtime.
"That's not a bridge that the city has been willing to cross, at this point," Marrs said. "That would be a very hotly-debated contract issue, if we tried to change their schedule."
Copeland said the union is willing to discuss changing firefighter schedules to cut down on overtime — particularly if the city hires more firefighters as a result of the new schedule.
But hiring more firefighters would likely cost the city more money than current overtime payments, Marrs said.
And firefighters might prefer to keep the overtime payments.
"I think if you ask a lot of our guys about overtime, they'll tell you that it's a good benefit," Bryant said.
A long-standing concern
Last month, the city council and the fire union each rejected the other's final offer for a new contract. The union wants raises and new hires the city says it can't afford.
An arbitrator is expected to issue a ruling on the contract by Tuesday.
Fueling the contract dispute is a sharp decrease in city revenue collections, which has forced the city to scramble to avoid layoffs and maintain services as national economic woes crept into local economies. Oklahoma City's general fund revenue was down 9 percent this past July compared with July 2008.
But most council members said the fabric of the dispute lies in their long-standing issues with public safety's growing share of the city budget.
The firefighters' overtime policy, in particular, has been a burning concern for years. Council members have remained tepid about the policy, which many said has been "forced" on them by courts and arbitrators that sided with the union.
"They're not the policies of the council or my office or even management," Cornett said.
Fire and police employees, whose contracts are negotiated by unions, received 87 percent of the nearly $14.5 million the city paid in overtime this past fiscal year.
Fire department employees received the most, with $7.3 million. Police employees received $5.2 million.
Public safety officials note that the nature of their work is driven not by schedules, but by necessity.
"We are in a business to respond to the needs of the public," said police Capt. Steve McCool. "That always is going to trump and come first."
Firefighters like it that way.
"It's a stressful job. You don't ever sleep soundly," Copeland said. "But don't get me wrong — I wouldn't trade this job for anything. It's the best job in the world."
Firefighters see more false calls, fewer fires
Oklahoma City firefighters are busier than ever, but they’re facing danger less often.
In the past decade, a sweeping shift in the fire department’s workload has seen firefighters battle far fewer fires while spending more time responding to situations where they’re not needed, The Oklahoman found in a review of fire department incident data.
The department’s workload has grown 62 percent since 1999. Fire union officials are quick to note the increase while negotiating with the city for firefighter raises and a bigger staff.
What the union doesn’t tout is that the amount of false alarms or incidents in which firefighters’ help wasn’t needed have tripled since 1999.
“When in doubt, you go,” Fire Chief Keith Bryant said.
The fire department hasn’t added major responsibilities in the past decade, yet its workload growth far exceeded the city’s growth during that time, according to a comparison of Census data and incident data.
Fire department and union officials said it’s tough to say why.
“I can’t pinpoint any one reason,” said Gary Copeland, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 157, the local fire union.
Some council members attribute the workload increase to unnecessary responses to medical calls, which are responded to by Emergency Medical Services Authority ambulances and fire engines.
“They (firefighters) are busier because they want to be,” said Ward 4 Councilman Pete White. “They (dispatchers) call out the fire department before they ever find out if they’re needed or not.”
Fire officials are exploring ways to reduce dead-end calls but said over-responding is better than under-responding.
“We’re in the business of responding to the needs of citizens,” said Fire Chief Keith Bryant. “A lot of people’s access to the health care system is to dial 911. ... We’re at the mercy of 911 calls.”
Oklahoma City residents remain happy with their fire service, giving the department a 92 percent approval rating in a recent citizen survey commissioned by the city.
- The review of incident data found:
- Medical calls consistently account for roughly half of the incidents to which firefighters respond, but they’ve skyrocketed in frequency, from 20,584 in 1999 to 30,184 last year.
- Fires accounted for just 4.7 percent of incidents in 2008 after a steady decline from 7.2 percent in 1999.
- In 23 percent of 2008 incidents, firefighters left the station only to find they weren’t needed. That compares with 10 percent in 1999.
The findings are part of a national trend. Fire calls in the U.S. have dropped by 31 percent in the past 20 years, while medical calls rose 145 percent and false alarms rose 122 percent, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
“Statistics point to fires being down, but the way we utilize the personnel puts a greater demand on the personnel,” said Curt Varone, a former Rhode Island firefighter who now works at the association.
Meeting the need
Bryant is concerned about the rise in the number of incidents to which firefighters respond but aren’t needed. Fire officials are reviewing all incident calls to see if there’s a way to cut back safely on responses.
But it’s a delicate balance.
Bryant wants to prevent emergency equipment from getting tied up on dead-end calls, but the department also must meet the public need, he said.
“I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point where we’re not over-responding,” Bryant said.
Firefighters notice the heavier workload, and while it’s made the job more stressful, they welcome it.
“You do it (become a firefighter) because you want to help people,” said firefighter Ricky Harris, a 19-year veteran.
Local firefighters such as Harris are now calling on their emergency medical technician training much more often than their firefighting training. When Harris started 19 years ago, he didn’t know much about medicine.
“They taught us basic triage in training, but that was it,” Harris said.
Now, the fire department is as much of an emergency medical services and rescue operation as it is a firefighting operation.
In the 1990s, the department began requiring all firefighters to have EMT training, fire Deputy Chief Cecil Clay said.
“Fire services all across the country have progressed into EMS as a dominant part of their fire service,” Clay said. “Now we’ve got guys that are highly-trained medical specialists and do a lot of street medicine.”
Harris puts it bluntly: “We’ve got a lot of people. A lot of people that do a lot of stuff.”
About 150 Oklahoma City firefighters are also certified paramedics, and 27 of the city’s 36 fire engines are paramedic engines, Clay said.
In recent years, the local firefighter union has advocated for handing city ambulance services over to firefighters, which would boost the department’s workload.
Local ambulance and paramedic services are now provided by EMSA, which the city subsidizes. City officials have considered transferring ambulance service to the fire department, but council members in 2006 voted to stick with EMSA until at least 2011.
The evolution of fire
Tougher building codes and new construction techniques have led to a nationwide drop in structure fires. It’s no different locally, Oklahoma City firefighters said.
But there’s a price: Fires are more dangerous.
New construction burns more quickly than old buildings. Basic household furniture materials emit more toxic flames when they catch fire than in the past.
Advances in firefighter protective gear and equipment help firefighters get closer to fires, but that, too, carries a price.
“Firefighters today are in much greater proximity of danger at fire scenes than they were before,” Varone said.
Despite being in danger less often, firefighting remains a dangerous job.
“We’re making less fires, but we’re still killing the same amount of firefighters a year,” Clay said.
Arbitrators will settle city’s contract with firefighters
Years of acrimonious negotiations between Oklahoma City and its fire union boiled over this summer as the city's revenue plunged with the national recession.
At issue are raises that would cost the city about $1.5 million, cash city officials say they don't have. Both sides have held firm, leaving the final decision to a panel of three arbitrators who are scheduled to decide by Tuesday between proposals by each side.
The city's last offer rolled over its contract with firefighters from last year. The fire union wants raises of just under 2 percent. City officials said history indicates the arbitrators likely will side with the union.
"There is no magic place to find this money," City Manager Jim Couch said. "You are going to have to make other cuts in other areas, which could be personnel."
Gary Copeland, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 157, which represents Oklahoma City, said firefighters pushed for raises after the city refused to address other concerns such as understaffing.
"We are not trying to bankrupt the city," Copeland said. "We are in this with the city, but all we got was stonewalled."
Those on both sides of the negotiations said the relationship between city leaders and union officials has grown more confrontational in the past decade. Meanwhile, the cost of public safety is eating up a larger portion of the city's budget every year.
"As much as I would like to support public safety, the salary and benefit increases that the firefighters' union typically requests appear like it's insatiable," Mayor Mick Cornett said.
All about money?
Ward 4 Councilman Pete White first served on the city council from 1982 to 1989. Back then, White said, the relationship between the city and the fire union was more cooperative. By the time White came back to the council in 2005, the cooperation was gone.
White said he got into politics as a pro-labor candidate. He served as the chairman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party from 1989 to 1992. He extolled the ability of unions to win better working conditions and improve safety for employees in many industries, including municipal government.
But White said he has little sympathy for the fire union's position, which he says isn't about safety equipment or working conditions.
"All it's about is money," White said. "There is a lot of effort put in on the union's part, some of it extremely creative, to make it look like it isn't about money, but it is."
Copeland said the union was willing to give up raises this year if the city would hire more firefighters or revamp scheduling to fill holes in fire stations that are understaffed. Copeland said city officials wouldn't even consider those options.
"Since 2001, we've lost 51 firefighters that have never been replaced because of budget cuts," Copeland said. "We have had difficulty with increased training and increased incidents. It is becoming increasingly difficult to even schedule a day off."
City officials said the expiration of a temporary public safety sales tax has reduced the number of firefighters since 2001, but the city still has 200 more firefighters than it did 20 years ago.
Copeland and White both said the city and fire union don't understand each other and have drifted further apart in recent years.
Ward 1 Councilman Gary Marrs certainly understands city firefighters. Marrs served on the city's fire department for 30 years and was fire chief from 1992 to 2001.
Marrs said part of the reason the relationship has deteriorated through the years is the system under which the parties negotiate. Under state law, police and firefighters are prohibited from striking. In return, their unions can take contract disputes to arbitrators.
In times of economic prosperity, the union wins raises and benefits that are never rolled back when the economy changes, as it has this year, Marrs said.
"What has happened is the city feels like they've seen nothing but demands from the fire union without the willingness to bargain away anything," Marrs said. "It is hard to get anything back from them, especially in arbitration."
No good options
If an arbitrator rules in the union's favor, the only way for the city to overturn the ruling is to take the issue before city voters, something Oklahoma City has never done.
The city avoids taking contract disputes before voters for two reasons, Couch said. One is the cost of a citywide election, which can be about $180,000, said Doug Sanderson, secretary of the Oklahoma County Election Board.
Such a price tag could be avoided if the city scheduled an election about the contract issues on the same day as another vote, such as MAPS 3, which is expected to be on the ballot in December.
Couch said the city also wants to avoid publicly battling its employees, who he said are dedicated and work hard for the city.
"We'll do it if we need to do it, but I don't think we want to take on our employee groups," Couch said. "We'd much rather sit down and work through the issues. I feel like we're in a bit of a corner. We don't have any good options."
Copeland said firefighters don't want an election battle any more than city leaders. He said the union is keeping the lines of negotiation open even as the arbitrators' decision is imminent.
"We're city employees, and we're in this together," Copeland said. "I just wish we could understand one another."
Marrs and White said the city also may not like its chances in an election battle against firefighters, even if they believe the economics are on their side.
"I think the union has done as good a job on public relations as they have fighting fires," White said. "I doubt seriously that the public understands their working conditions, how early they can retire, what their retirement package is, the overtime they get, how the job hours permit most firefighters to have another full-time occupation. Anybody would love to have that deal."