I would like to pose several questions and also state a couple of facts that were left out of your article discussing public safety overtime in the City of Berkeley.
Why did the Daily Planet feel the necessity to publish individual names in the April 5 article? It appears that the Daily Planet has a specific agenda rather than a desire to include all the facts and produce an objective report. If the people listed in the article were offenders of a crime, or there was any benefit to their names being published, I would understand. But in this case, I cannot think of one reason why the article would not have been just as effective if written in a non-specific fashion, simply stating rank and salary earned. These employees are now fearful of harassment and retaliatory actions by angered readers that have been given a biased view of the current overtime situation in our department.
Would this story have been worded differently if the majority of the overtime had been split more evenly amongst more than three of our members? The numbers would not have been so impressive; I wonder if the story would have even been published? Remember that these individuals spent more than 1200-plus hours each (in addition to their normal 56-hour work schedule) during that year earning overtime; it didn’t just get handed to them!
When discussing public safety overtime you have to keep several things in mind: First, we are mandated to keep a certain level of service available to the city 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That means that whenever someone is on vacation, off on sick leave, injured or retires and creates a vacancy that takes time to fill, it creates an open position that has to be backfilled by an employee, who will receive overtime pay. This is not an option for us. If there are no volunteers for the open position(s), then we get what is called a mandatory overtime assignment. When this occurs, we (firefighters) have no choice but to stay and work….no matter what other personal obligations we might have at home. The frequency of this occurrence in 2004 was at an all time high—as a direct result of understaffing, combined with our regular vacation and sick leaves.
A firefighter works 24-hour shifts compared to the normal 8-hour day. Let’s compare the numbers: A 40-hour employee works eight hours a day, 160 hours a month and 1920 hours a year (not including vacation or holidays). A 24-hour employee works 24 hours a day, 212 hours a month and 2,912 hours a year (again, with no vacation or holidays). So, a firefighter works a minimum of 992 (24.8 weeks) MORE than a 40-hour worker, not including any overtime hours!
The Fire Department has become a multi-discipline profession. We are who you call when don’t know what to do, when city offices are closed, when you don’t have the resources at home to deal with a situation. We are trained in firefighting operations, paramedicine, hazardous materials response, basic water rescue, structural collapse rescue operations, tactical emergency medicine and act as liaisons from citizens to available city/county services. Many of us have the knowledge of two to three entirely separate professions (each of which would pay 50-60K in the private sector); we train hard, put many volunteer hours in to career development and deserve what we earn in salary and benefits! Not to mention that a significant number of us retire and pass away within two to six years from job related illnesses, mainly cancer.
The city has been aware of the increase in our PERS (firefighter retirement plan) costs. The spike was projected some time ago by the state organization that manages our plan (CalPERS). The article states the police overtime budget was projected at 2.4 million, the Fire Department budget was projected by our administration (apparently at a lower number), is there a possibility that the numbers were simply projected incorrectly?
We are here to protect and serve this community, period. All Berkeley citizens should be aware of that fact. Yes, we might require a large budget when retirement costs temporarily rise, but I live in this city, and I am more than willing to pay for that protection! Firefighters and police officers are the people that you never want to see pulling up in front of your house. But when you need us, we can’t get there fast enough! When you need us, wouldn’t you want us fully staffed, to have all our stations open 24/7 and for us to be trained and equipped with the latest technology!! Before making any judgments about the firefighters or police officers in your city, please investigate and gather all the facts. Don’t take the opinion of one side —this is a complicated issue.
David Sprague-Livingston is a Berkeley resident and firefighter.