Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb called Wednesday for an end to "out of control" overtime in the fire bureau, but city and union officials warned that it isn't so easy to balance public safety, firefighter safety and city finances.
Overtime, or "premium pay," was the main concern raised in Mr. Lamb's audit of the fire bureau. In 2010, the bureau spent $10.8 million on overtime, about $548,000, or 5 percent, more than budgeted. Last year, the bureau spent $11.8 million on overtime, about $1.5 million, or 14 percent, more than budgeted.
"Frankly, it's been out of control in both of the years we looked at," Mr. Lamb said, attributing much of the overtime to the minimum staffing level -- 163 firefighters on duty at all time -- required by union contract.
Firefighters work 24 hours straight, then get 72 hours off. At times, however, firefighters are held over after their shifts or called in during days off to maintain the minimum staffing level.
Because stronger building codes and other factors have reduced the number of structure fires in recent years, Mr. Lamb said, the minimum staffing level should be revaluated when the firefighters' contract expires in 2014.
Darrin Kelly, trustee for International Association of Firefighters Local 1, said the union stands by the minimum staffing level of 163. Without it, he said, the bureau could not meet the national standard for response time, which is to have the first truck on the scene within four minutes of getting a call and the full complement on the scene within eight minutes.
The audit provided no statistics on how much overtime the average firefighter works in a week, and neither city nor union officials could provide that data Wednesday. Mr. Kelly said overtime varies across the city.
"Some districts have more vacancies than others. Some people don't take overtime," he said.
Mr. Kelly and Thomas Cook, assistant fire chief for planning and support, agreed that they'd like to reduce overtime by adding firefighters to the payroll.
"We definitely encourage the hiring of more firefighters," Mr. Kelly said, noting that the bureau has not put on a recruit class since 2008.
That will change in January, when the city begins training a class of 56 recruits. Chief Cook said a second class is scheduled to begin training in the spring.
The bureau this year has an authorized complement of 667 -- including Chief Darryl Jones, Chief Cook and other command staff -- but Mr. Kelly said it's currently operating with 490 personnel. If the bureau were at full complement, Chief Cook said, most overtime would be eliminated.
Mr. Lamb acknowledged that a discussion of minimum staffing could involve an exploration of other issues, such as how many engines the city needs.
Michael Huss, city public safety director, took issue with the audit. "Have the controller identify what neighborhood fire stations he wants to close and how many firefighters he wants to cut -- and we'll take a look at it," Mr. Huss said in a statement.
"Pittsburgh firefighters do a great job at protecting life and property and we are proud to have one of the best response rates in the country," Mr. Huss said.
The audit does not call for closing any fire stations.
The 163-person staffing level resulted in 54.8 percent of overtime in 2010 and 62.4 percent last year, the audit said. But overtime also is incurred for special details such as fireworks, movie shoots, holidays and training. Mr. Lamb said the city should make an effort to provide training during firefighters' regular shifts.
Mr. Kelly said firefighters know better than anyone else that overtime is a problem in the fire bureau and that excessive overtime compromises firefighter safety.
Donald Konkle, executive director of Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute and a former Harrisburg firefighter and fire chief, said there's a "direct correlation" between excessive overtime and threats to firefighter safety. He said the danger is greatest not on major calls, when firefighters' adrenaline kicks in, but on routine calls when they may not have their heads in the game.
It is not unheard of for firefighters to work 36 hours straight, Mr. Konkle said, noting many cities struggle with the overtime dilemma. "It is, unfortunately, happening more all the time," he said.
Mr. Konkle said some cities prefer to pay overtime than to hire firefighters and pay them benefits, give them sick time and, if an accident occurs, pay workers' compensation. But at some point, he said, someone looks at the budget and the overtime "jumps off the page."
But overtime isn't the only risk to firefighter safety. Risk also increases, Chief Cook said, when minimum staffing levels put an inadequate number of firefighters on duty.
Not all overtime is incurred by firefighters on the front lines. Indeed, the five highest-paid firefighters in 2011 were a captain, a battalion chief and three deputy chiefs, and the top-paid so far this year are two battalion chiefs and three deputy chiefs, according to data provided by the city personnel department.
Battalion Chief Lawrence T. Yakich is the fifth-highest paid so far this year, bringing in about $136,677 -- about $84,289 in base pay and about $52,388 in overtime -- through Dec. 19, the personnel department said. Chief Yakich said he earned the overtime during eight months he spent serving as chief of the hazardous materials unit in addition to his regular duties.
"It's overwhelming," he said, noting hazmat chief now is a separate position.
Joe Smydo: email@example.com or 412-263-1548.