Firefighters packed City Hall on Monday April 16, creating a veritable sea of square shoulders, dark blue T-shirts and blue and black SDFD baseball caps. Some sported the kind of mustaches appropriate for 1970s tough-guy actors. They sat facing the City Council, row upon row of them, 150 or so strong (about one third of the department) waiting to find out if city leaders would give them a raise come July.
They knew the offer on the table: nothing.
According to Mayor Jerry Sanders and his negotiators, just 43 firefighters left the department in 2006, only two leaving for departments elsewhere (though negotiator Lisa Briggs noted that two more had done so just last week). Some 2,000 people applied for 50 spots in the firefighting academy, Briggs said. The mayor's argument is that there are plenty of people willing to fight our fires at the current rates. Police officers, on the other hand, are leaving in droves for pastures that offer them more green, and that's why Sanders offered them a 6-percent increase effective in July and another 2 percent in December. The firefighters will just have to wait.
But the murmurs in the audience offered a less sanguine appraisal of the proceedings. Some muttered that they knew of more than two going to other departments. But the more common comment was this: If the city doesn't come up with some money this year, they will start leaving. Those two who just left last week may only be the beginning of the flood. City Council President Scott Peters even said firefighters should adopt such a strategy in order to get a raise.
In Sanders' proposed 2008 budget, entry-level firefighters are slated to earn $39,360, and more experienced firefighters would get $60,083. But some told CityBeat they're having trouble keeping up with the rising cost of living in San Diego.
'I couldn't make ends meet down here, so I live up in Temecula,” said Mark Carr, a 10-year veteran.
'I had to sell my house to make ends meet; I rent now,” said Dennis Pascal, who's been fighting fires for 28 years.
'I'm married with two kids. Financially? I've got a snorkel on,'said Bill Waugaman, an eight-year veteran.
'I can't afford to live here. I live with my parents with my 2-year-old twins and my wife,'said Tim Olson, 24, only in his second year.
To hear the firefighters tell it, the department will see the new guys, like Olson, leave first.
'Anybody with under five years is looking at leaving,'Carr said.
Their youth makes them more desirable to other departments, he explained, plus they have fewer years invested in pension benefits. At particular risk are those hired after July 1, 2005, who will get no retirement health benefits.
'I'm waiting to see what they do here today. Otherwise, I'm going to apply to L.A. County,'Olson said. 'Or I could apply to Riverside. I'd make more money, and they have fewer people and no high-rises.”
Salary surveys conducted by the city and by the union say the average salary for San Diego firefighters compares poorly to other major cities. Some firefighters showed the surveys to CityBeat, but it was clear they didn't entirely understand what they were discussing. Firefighters don't need to know the statistics; they just know they can get more money elsewhere. Olson, for example, said he could make 30 percent more working for Los Angeles County.
Salaries are only one measure of demand for firefighters. Normally, firefighters looking to change cities must go through that city's academy and a probationary period as if they were new recruits. But in periods of high demand, cities create 'lateral academies”-four-week courses designed to teach experienced firefighters local variations on procedures. These days, firefighters say they could attend lateral academies in Anaheim, Riverside, Coronado and Los Angeles, just to name a few.
Brian Powell, a 20-year veteran, left Coronado for San Diego back when it had such a lateral academy.
'I'm making less now than I did then for Coronado,'he said. 'I may go back.”
If the city doesn't pony up, the temptation may prove too great.
'It dismays me that the city refuses to give us a pay raise,'said Waugaman, a former Marine. 'The cost of living goes up, but we're making less.'
He made more money at the department before he did a tour in Iraq. While he was gone, the city insisted firefighters start paying 6 percent of their salary into the pension fund. Firefighters haven't received a raise in two years, so it amounted to a pay cut. Powell is looking around at other cities.
In her presentation to the City Council, Briggs said she was aware of the rumors of a potential exodus of firefighters. 'Some say we are about to see fire[fighters] head down the same path the police department went down, and we are about to see a crisis in the fire department,'she said. 'The current data does not support such a conclusion.”
When Fire Chief Tracy Jarman spoke before the City Council's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee on Feb. 28, she concurred that there is no crisis-yet.
But 'I'm starting to see a trend in my department similar to the police department,'she said.
Jarman pointed out that 35 recruits had declined offers to take jobs with her department during the last five years, choosing instead to work for other cities. She said that almost never happened before. The last time the department offered the firefighters exam, it had only 100 applicants and had to engage in a 'media blitz'to get the number up to 2,000. The firefighters at City Hall felt even that number was inflated.
'They didn't tell them the requirements. I had people knocking on the firehouse door to become a fireman,'Powell said. 'I said, are you an EMT? No? Then you can't be a fireman.”
Briggs also pointed out that this is a one-year deal, and that they will be back to the bargaining table next year to talk to all of the unions. If there's evidence of an exodus, she said, everyone will know that in time for the next round of negotiations.
Peters expressed concern last Thursday about a coming wave of departures, and other council members said at Monday's meeting that they're hoping to get the firefighters a raise of some kind.
Most of the firefighters said that if the city showed a good-faith effort, they'd stay. 'Firefighters are a different breed-we're loyal,'Carr said. Perhaps also worth noting is that budget season happens to coincide with the start of fire season in Southern California. And San Diego is coming out of one of the driest winters on record.
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