(The Center Square) - Across the country, it is not the mayors, municipal judges, city attorneys or city managers who are often the highest-paid municipal employees. Firefighters have become the top-paid employees due to a staffing model that triggers an enormous amount of overtime by mandating any absences must be filled regardless of need.
And for those willing to work the extra hours, the compensation can reward them with pay almost four times that of the firefighters' base salary.
In Los Angeles, six fire department employees made $500,000 or more in 2021, with a fire captain having gross pay of $598,532 due to $434,394 in overtime.
A firefighter in Las Vegas had gross pay of $254,304 in 2021 due to $139,061 in overtime. An assistant fire chief made $281,598 that same year. Twelve of the city of Las Vegas' top 20 paid employees were firefighters in 2021.
In San Francisco, one firefighter made $257,072 in overtime in 2021 and had gross pay of $413,844. An assistant fire chief had gross pay of $458,223 thanks to $193,883 in overtime in 2021. That year, 11 San Francisco fire department employees made more than $400,000.
The overtime benefits more than just a handful of firefighters.
In the city of New York, there were 831 fire department employees who made $50,000 or more in overtime in 2021.
The staffing model used by fire departments all around the U.S. is referred to as "minimum staffing." It is typically negotiated into union contracts and agreed to by city administrators and mandates that if any fire department employee is absent from a shift, that vacancy must be filled.
As a 2016 study of the Houston Fire Department staffing model explained, " ... Unlike operational firefighters, if an employee is absent for any reason from a non-emergency operations position in the fire department or from most general government positions, that position is simply vacant for the day."
But within the Houston fire department, absences are filled usually with overtime if staffing levels fall below a prescribed level.
In 2019, the city of Santa Rosa, California, did an assessment of its fire department's minimum staffing levels. Each Santa Rosa firefighter on average had 240 vacation hours a year that needed to be replaced, the equivalent of 30 eight-hour workdays.
"Compounding this problem is the incidences of unscheduled absences for sick leave, military leave, bereavement, jury duty, and time off for training, all of which create an additional physical burden on the remaining employees and a financial burden for the City to provide the funding for the added overtime costs," the city's study noted.
The study reported a typical 48-hour shift for a Santa Rosa firefighter would cost the city $1,651 at regular time but $2,477 at the overtime rate, or 50% higher. The study stated that the city paid $15.5 million in wages to the fire department in 2018 and an additional $6.1 million in overtime that year.
In Santa Clara County in California, a Civil Grand Jury investigated minimum staffing in that county in 2011 and recommended ending the practice. The investigation reported that city managers and fire chiefs within the county "generally agreed that fire department operations as currently configured are unsustainable."
"... contractually based minimum staffing requirements are not warranted and hinder fire chiefs in effectively managing firefighter staffing to meet time of day, day of week, season of year demand. This wastes money and may drive station closure as budgets continue to erode," the grand jury stated.
The grand jury also recommended that any city within the county that have minimum staffing requirements in union contracts "should reopen negotiations with the unions to eliminate this term and any other term that limits a fire chief's ability to 'right-size' staffing given the time of day or time of year."
However, fire departments across the country still employ minimum staffing requirements.
"Las Vegas Fire and Rescue does have a staffing approach that ensures that units are staffed with a minimum of four staff. This methodology is a best practice in the fire service and allows firefighters to operate safely while providing great service to our residents," said Jace Radke, spokesman for the city of Las Vegas. "In terms of the gross pay and some of the larger numbers for firefighters, this is largely due to overtime costs."
In the city of Houston, 633 employees of the fire department made $100,000 or more in a city where the median household income was $53,600 in 2020.
One Houston firefighter with a base salary of $64,900 had gross pay of $171,396 in 2021. An engineer/operator with a base pay of $66,293 had a gross pay of $234,594 that same year.
Houston uses minimum staffing requirements based on the model put forward by the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit that advocates for firefighters.
Curt Floyd, a retired deputy fire chief who works for the National Fire Protection Association, said the minimum staffing recommendations "are based on studies done to determine the efficiency levels of operations conducted with different numbers of on scene staff with safety being the focus."
"There are overtime costs in many communities that have career responders and that is often due to lack of staffing from various causes," Floyd said in an email. "The minimum staffing requirements are typically a decision that is made via contract negotiations and established operational procedures that vary from department to department."