In 2015 the Camas-Washougal Fire Department spent $646,000 on overtime expenses, exceeding budgeted levels by more than $200,000.
According to Chief Nick Swinhart, this high number does not appear to simply be an anomaly.
“This year potentially has a possibility to be worse than last year,” he said during the Aug. 15 Camas City Council workshop.
Swinhart stressed the need for a long-term solution to a problem that is faced by fire departments across the country.
A number of contributing factors impact overtime, including use of sick leave, leaves of absence following on-the-job injuries, vacancies due to an employee resignation or retirement, and use of vacation time and elective leave.
“Fire department overtime is a point of frustration not only for you folks, but also for fire chiefs,” Swinhart told the Council. “One of the biggest problems is it’s something you can’t traditionally predict in emergency services because certain things can happen. You can have major incidents. It’s hard to predict sick leave. It’s hard to predict [workers compensation] usage. That can be really frustrating because you can’t predict how much overtime you’ll use.”
According to Swinhart, the fire department has budgeted $436,000 for overtime in 2016. Approximately $406,000 has already been spent.
Contributing factors in 2015 and 2016 include six to seven paramedics out due to injuries, and the resignation of four within a short period of time.
“It takes up to six months to get another person fully trained in filling the shoes of the person that left,” Swinhart said. “Unfortunately, last year we had four paramedics all leave about the same period time. For every one of those four, that was six months of typically what is overtime being hired every single day that the person who left would have been working.”
Future concerns include the possibility of a significant number of employee retirements.
“We feel there is probably going to be a huge turnover in the fire department in the next five years or less,” Swinhart said. “Some estimates say that we could lose over one-fourth of the fire department to retirements.”
Oftentimes fire department officials are left with few choices when faced with the decision about whether to exceed budgeted levels of overtime, as they work to meet minimum staffing levels.
“When you come down to it, the only alternative we have to actually paying overtime is we either have to close down fire stations, or we have to hire more personnel,” Swinhart said. “Those are the immediate up front fixes, and there are more long-term fixes that we can look at. I think it’s hard for people to understand. [They say] if your budget’s in the red, why are you still paying people to work on overtime? We have to, or we have to shut down ambulances, engines or fire trucks.”
Long-term solutions suggested by Swinhart involve making adjustments to union firefighters’ contracts, which stipulate rules regarding taking elective leave and use of “Kelly Days,” which are unpaid days off a fire department employee receives to bring his or her work week down to the negotiated number of hours. The current contract language states that elective leave can be taken even if doing so would cause overtime.
“Ultimately, at the end of the day the fix for that lies in getting the labor group to agree to change it,” Swinhart said. “We are working collaboratively again with the labor group right now as part of contract negotiations that are ongoing, to see if we can both come up with a fix that might allow us to develop a new system where leave isn’t causing so much overtime.”
Hiring additional employees is not a permanent solution, according to Swinhart. The fire department would still incur unpredictable overtime expenses.
“It’s one of those things that can be really frustrating because some of it, quite a lot of it, actually, feels like it’s just outside of my control,” Swinhart said. “We continue to work, to try to find ways to try to reign that in, where we have the tools, and we’ll keep doing that.”
Mayor Scott Higgins said the elusive long-term solution will require city leaders and union negotiators to work as partners.
“Hopefully, we can work for good, collaborative improvements as we go forward,” he said.