Carson City fire OT looks bad but no ‘gaming of the system’
Carson City Manager Nick Marano and Fire Chief Sean Slamon agree the huge amount of overtime earned by top fire employees last year looks bad.
The top three on that list each earned more overtime than their base salaries, raking in anywhere from $183,771 to $214,188 in total pay for 2017.
But after a week of reviewing those firemen and others on a list published by the Nevada Policy Research Institute, Marano said there was “no gaming of the system” and no legal or contract provisions broken.
He and Slamon said the large amount of overtime paid department wide in 2017 was primarily the result of two factors: sending teams to outside agencies to battle wildfires around the West, particularly in California, and vacancies within the Carson City Fire Department that required employees to cover shifts on overtime.
Slamon said a large amount of that overtime resulted from Carson firemen going to California to help with catastrophic fires. Marano said up to a third of that overtime bill — more than $400,000 — is being reimbursed to Carson City by California agencies that received the help.
“Some of these firefighters referenced in the article, up to a third of their overtime was reimbursed by external agencies,” he said.
But Slamon said every fireman sent to California left a vacant shift in the Carson City schedule that had to be filled by some one working overtime.
“We get reimbursed for the guys who are gone but it creates a hole here,” said Marano.
The second factor is vacancies. Carson City has 32 firemen and a total of 60 uniformed employees, including medics. Last year, Slamon said, retirements and resignations left his department with eight vacancies. He said that meant vacant shifts in the weekly schedule that had to be covered, generating large amounts of overtime.
And when the vacancy being covered is a captain who typically has a salary of more than $90,000 a year, compounded by the fact that fire shifts are 24 hours long, overtime adds up fast.
Firemen typically work two shifts a week. The same is true of the department’s 15 paramedics, some of whom also recorded significant overtime.
One of the charges levied against the department is those employees were taking personal, sick or vacation time for two shifts a week, then working two or three shifts after that in the same week. Under the fire department’s contract, the vacation and sick time shifts count which means they already had 48 hours worked and everything after that counts as overtime.
They said that’s pretty much standard language in fire contracts.
“In the surrounding public entities, every single entity considers paid time off when calculating overtime during the work week,” said Marano.
But he said he and Slamon went through the entire year and none of the three employees singled out by NPRI did that.
“The key thing for the public to know is that was not happening,” Marano said.
Both men said the reason some employees earned so much OT is that working overtime is voluntary. Slamon said certain fire employees want to work that overtime for a variety of reasons while others, typically younger firemen with young families, want their free time.
They said they are working with the fire union to make some changes — most importantly setting a limit on the number of 24-hour shifts a firefighter can work without a break.
Slamon said that’s a safety issue because fatigue could be a serious problem in a fire.
He said, however, the overtime situation should get a lot better this year because most of those vacancies in his crew are being filled. He said six new firemen are just this week starting their training.
“We’re walking into summer with full staffing,” he said. “We’ll be in a much better position than last summer.”
He said he and his administrative staff are also working to keep on top of staffing and potential resignations and retirements.
“Last year just seemed like a perfect storm with vacancies and the wildland fires,” he said adding that in mid-summer, he declined a request to send some of his crews to the Santa Rosa fire because of his staffing shortage.