Part 2: Firefighter salaries don’t tell the whole story

By From page A1 | March 17, 2011

Part one of this three-part series described fire district funding inequities in El Dorado County and the status of a proposed regional consolidation. Part two explores how districts across the county are struggling to get smaller, the history of the funding inequities and how salaries compare across districts. Part three will look at the west slope fire districts individually, and report how the aid-to-fire cuts will affect the rural districts.

Compensation for those we call when our house is on fire, the the men and women who walk into our burning forests, pull our kids from mangled cars and come to our parents’ assistance when they’ve fallen and can’t get up, varies widely across the county, as does the fiscal condition of the districts that employ them.

Despite all the training required and the inherent dangers, it’s a job to which thousands of young men and women aspire. Many graduate from California fire academies each year, but most never make it to the fire house. Many don’t survive the intense paramedic training, rigorous testing or the scrutiny of the background check.

Latrobe Chief Chris Couper employs four recent graduates, whom he jokingly calls “indentured servants.”

“The wage is low, but it’s a foot in the door for them,” he said by phone.

In 2009, Latrobe’s highest paid part-timer made $31,200.

In the past, Couper had a hard time filling those positions. These days, there are plenty of applicants when he has an opening.

A recent survey by the National League of Cities found that fire agencies across the country are shrinking. An informal survey of fire chiefs on the West Slope confirms that El Dorado County is no different.

They won’t leave

The El Dorado Hills Fire Board recently upped a $50,000 exit incentive to $75,000 or two years CalPERS credit for any firefighter who resigns or retires.

Most of the takers thus far have been chiefs already primed for retirement. One captain threatened with termination for alleged disciplinary troubles also availed himself of the exit incentive.

Firefighters won handsome salaries, favorable work shifts and spectacular benefits in recent years, all of which had made them increasingly intransigent.

In California the groundwork for the retirement plans which firefighters and other government workers now enjoy — benefits that are currently being scrutinized nationwide — was laid in 1999 when SB 400 sailed through the California Legislature virtually unopposed. It increased retirement benefits for firefighters and law enforcement to 3 percent of the employee’s top annual salary for each year worked, eligible at the barely-grey-at-the-temples age of 50.

The bill’s sponsors predicted at the time that the cost of the bill would be $650 million in 2010, according to Adam Summers, a policy analyst for the Reason Foundation. The actual 2010 cost was $3.3 billion, according to a recent CalPERS press release.

CalPERS lost $56.2 billion for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2009. As a result, CalPERS contributions jumped to 28 percent of each firefighter’s salary last year, according to CalPERS. Many district officials remember when CalPERS was funded entirely through its investments.

Not all shifts are created equal

Paid firefighters in El Dorado County work 24-hour days in various combinations. Most districts have adopted a “two-on, four-off” work schedule known as a “48-96” shift, which consists of two consecutive 24-hour shifts, followed by four consecutive days off. It averages out to 56 hours per week.

Cameron Park has outsourced its fire and ambulance duties to CalFire, whose members work an extra day before their “four off” each week. The resulting “three-on, four-off” schedule totals 72 hours per week.

Georgetown Fire works a “traditional Kelly” shift, alternating three non-consecutive 24 hour work shifts with two 24-hour and one 96-hour off shifts.

Salary comparisons

Comparing overall compensation packages for fire districts is tricky business The districts work different shift schedules at different pay rates with varying overtime and bonus opportunities. See sidebar All shifts are not created equal on page 1.

The state Controller’s Office reports salary information from cities, counties and special districts annually and provides a foundation for comparing fire service compensation levels. The most recent reports are for calendar year 2009.

A quick perusal of the reports confirms El Dorado Hills’ position at the top of the payroll ladder in El Dorado County. They also make it abundantly clear that stated salary ranges don’t tell the whole compensation story.

Public sector employee retirement benefits have received a lot of attention recently. But actual earnings, before benefits, can stretch 50 percent or more beyond base salary. The maximum salary for an El Dorado Hills firefighter/paramedic in 2009 was $79,956, according to the State Controller’s Office, but they earned, on average $108,317.

Salary bloat is even more pronounced as you climb the salary ladder. The maximum salary for an El Dorado Hills captain was $105,144 in 2009, but their actual earnings averaged $157,469. One made $196,000.

El Dorado Hills interim Fire Chief Jim O’Camb explained that much of the overage is overtime paid by the state for participation in summer strike forces. The balance is overtime for shift coverage and education bonuses.

Overtime is less prevalent in rural fire districts, where staffing requirements are lower. An engine commonly operated by two firefighters in most of the county requires four at El Dorado Hills Station 87.

Volunteers play a greater role in day-to-day operations in rural districts, where flexible employee agreements let the chiefs use their volunteers and part-timers in creative ways.

In Diamond Springs, resident firefighter programs regularly put fully trained and qualified local businessmen on fire engines and in ambulances.

“These guys won’t take any money,” said Chief Todd Cunningham. “It’s a point of pride with them. They’re doing it to serve their community.”

Cunningham offers a variety of volunteer programs. Some pay stipends to career-minded volunteers, others, like the resident firefighter program, target altruistic locals.

Diamond Springs-El Dorado’s paid firefighter-paramedics’ maximum salary is $84,340. They took home, on average, $94,799 in 2009.

By comparison, El Dorado County Fire’s firefighter paramedics’ maximum salary was $75,042. They took home, on average, $83,276.

Rescue’s salaries are lower, but reflect a similar jump from maximum salary, $55,993 to actual takehome, $73,877.

The Pioneer Fire District listed three firefighter-paramedics in the 2009 report. They averaged $70,836 on a $56,734 maximum salary.

Chief salaries vary with district size and budget, with former El Dorado Hills Chief Brian Veerkamp firmly on top at $232,049 in 2009. El Dorado County Fire Chief Bruce Lacher took second with $161,202. Rescue Fire Chief Tom Keating made $118,238.

CalFire Battalion Chief Joe Tyler calls the shots in Cameron Park. He made $109,661 in 2009.

Garden Valley Chief Bill Dekker made $100,975. Pioneer Chief Robert Gill made $91,513. Only Georgetown Chief Greg Schwab left anything on the table, earning $87,102 of a $97,702 maximum salary.

The Mosquito Fire Protection District didn’t file salary information with the state. Chief Bob Davis, who wears several hats at the small district that’s had some big fires, reported by phone that he makes $61,000 per year.

Latrobe Fire Chief Chris Couper takes no salary.

Next time Part 3: West Slope fire district details.

[email protected]

Mike Roberts

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