Firefighters make more than chief
By James Fuller
Wheaton firefighters are racking up so much overtime pay that a few of them earned more than the fire chief last year.
City records show that, for about half of the department’s firefighters, overtime pay accounted for 20 percent to 40 percent of their entire yearly earnings.
Wheaton’s city manager said it can actually cost local taxpayers more for Wheaton to hire additional firefighters than to pay the hefty overtime bill.
But city officials are investigating whether the overtime is leading to even longer work shifts for firefighters, and whether that could compromise their safety and effectiveness on the job.
Numbers show Wheaton taxpayers paid more last year for firefighters’ overtime than for police overtime, even though the fire department is less than one-fourth the size of the police force.
In fact, seven fire department employees, most lieutenants, worked so much overtime in 2005 they brought home bigger paychecks than their boss, Wheaton Fire Chief Greg Berk.
How does an $80,000 salary turn into a $130,000 pay check? By the city trying to save some money.
It’s actually cheaper for the city to allow fire staff to log a grand total of $669,000 in overtime than to hire more firefighters, City Manager Don Rose said.
The reason is firefighters and police personnel, by contract, move up the pay scale relatively quickly. Plus, the benefits both police and fire personnel receive cost the city a pretty penny.
Factoring in health, life and unemployment insurance; social security; pensions; uniforms; cleaning costs; training; workman’s compensation and other benefits, and the total costs to the city of a first-year police officer is $95,000, Rose said.
Add in the cost of a new squad car and vehicle depreciation and it comes closer to $170,000. A first-year firefighter costs about $100,000.
Rose said the city learned its lesson about hiring more personnel to try and cut overtime costs a few years back.
In 2000, the fire department had 18 firefighters and overtime costs of $527,000. Three firefighters were hired the following year to try and cut that cost by an estimated $256,000.
“We didn’t come anywhere close to meeting that mark,” Rose said. “You hire new guys, all of sudden they’ve been here four or five years. They’re getting three weeks vacation, training, they’re gone for other reasons.”
The city actually only saved $134,000 the first year the three firefighters were hired. By 2004, the fire department’s overtime costs were back up to $534,000 – even more than it was before they hired the new staffers just three years before.
“Just hiring people doesn’t necessarily reduce your overtime in that department because of the work schedules, time off and benefits they get in those positions,” Rose said.
The work schedule of a firefighter – typically 24 hours on duty followed by 48 hours off -already results in them working more than the typical office worker in a calendar year.
Rank-and-file firefighters declined comment for this report and Berk, the chief, was out of town at a conference on Friday. But Rose said the fire staff doesn’t mind the overtime.
In fact, there’s a pecking order that essentially gives the most senior fire staffers the first shot at overtime. Overtime pay factors into pension benefits because the calculation uses highest total earnings in recent months. So working overtime pays a long-term benefit to Wheaton firefighters thinking about retiring soon.
So the question for the city in recent years has become, at what point does overtime translate into burnout?
Rose said the city developed an internal committee to investigate how many firefighters are needed to keep the city safe at any given time.
The committee also plans to look at how much overtime firefighters can work before they become a danger to themselves or others.
And to address possible staffing concerns, the coming budget likely will include additional ambulance services and probably some restructuring in the fire department’s administration, he said.
Berk has asked for up to 12 more firefighters, depending on how the restructuring is done. Rose said 12 is a “truly unrealistic” number given the costs. Four new firefighters would be the minimum in Berk’s request.
“It’s up to the city council to set the priorities,” Rose said. “If you want more people, you have to figure out how you’re going to go about it.”
Overtime costs add up at fire department
Several Wheaton Fire Department employees earned through 2005 overtime pay enough to surpass the salary of the fire chief.*
Top fire department earners:
1. Fire Lieutenant A: $130,924 (includes $50,526 in overtime)
2. Fire Lieutenant B: $129,691 ($50,619 in overtime)
3. Fire Lieutenant C: $126,861 ($47,789 in overtime)
4. Fire Lieutenant D: $126,783 ($48,083 in overtime)
5. Fire Lieutenant E: $124,673 ($46,641 in overtime)
6. Fire Lieutenant F: $124,186 ($45,114 in overtime)
7. Firefighter A: $97,557 ($30,908 in overtime)
8. Fire Chief Greg Berk: $95,615 (no overtime)
Source: City of Wheaton, which did not provide names of earners cited above, except for the fire chief.
*Overtime includes standard overtime wages plus “firefighter replacement pay.” By the city’s definition, such pay is given for overtime earned when a firefighter substitutes for a co-worker who is absent because of sick time, vacation time or other reasons.
A look at staffing levels for the Wheaton police and fire departments.
– Police: 151 paid positions
– Fire: 37 paid positions
– Police: 89 employees received overtime
– Fire: 33 employees received overtime
Non-overtime salary costs
– Police: $6,119,410
– Fire: $2,477,076
Overtime salary costs
– Police: $602,420
– Fire: $668,707
Total: $1.27 million
Total salary cost, including base pay and overtime
– $9.86 million
Source: City of Wheaton, based on 2005 earnings.