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Island Talkback: Firefighters respond to pension, pay concerns

Submitted by on 1, April 11, 2011 – 12:01 am7 Comments

By Domenick Weaver

As we once again enter the process of developing the budget of the City of Alameda, many questions have been raised about the fiscal practices and management of the city. Some questions have arisen about public safety contracts and post employment benefits. I would like to set the record straight as to how these things came to be, and dispel rumors that the firefighters are out to “bankrupt the city.”

Since 1997, the Alameda Fire Department staffed five fire engines, two fire trucks and three ambulances with 27 firefighters 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In 2009, 18 street-level firefighter positions were eliminated and the engine company serving Alameda Point and West Alameda was closed and staffing reduced to 24 firefighters on duty per day. The fire prevention bureau was virtually eliminated and our training division was cut by 50 percent. The marine operations program providing fire boat and water rescue service was shut down.

The department had been plagued with mandatory (forced) overtime that required members of an understaffed department to work an additional 20 percent annually. By 2007, the department incurred over $2.2 million in overtime costs. The firefighters have been on record with city officials back to 2005 that these practices were not only fiscally irresponsible but also dangerous.

Recently, the salaries of all city employees were posted on the Internet and several misinformed, emotional responses have been posted as follow-up comments. In an effort to assist the city with meeting budget challenges, the firefighters, police officers, electrical workers, management and confidential employees, and employees represented by the Alameda City Employees Association have all taken no salary increases since 2007. Concessions have been made in regards to vacation benefits and we are all continuing to work together with the city find ways to restructure our contracts and meet the ever-changing needs of the city.

When you see the reported salaries of Alameda firefighters, that number is likely to include overtime dollars and varies between employees (even within the same classification) based on how much they worked. Your Alameda firefighters are scheduled to work 2,912 regular hours per year, or 56 hours a week. That is over 800 more hours per year of regular work than the standard 40 hour per week employee.

In comparison with like-sized fire departments in like-sized cities throughout the Bay Area, our firefighters are already near the lowest end of the pay scale. Alameda firefighters earn a base salary of $31.63 per hour. Apparatus operators earn $34.45 per hour, and fire captains earn $39.24 per hour.

If a firefighter earns overtime, it is for additional time spent on duty. The overwhelming majority of it is for maintaining the 24 firefighters on duty each day to respond on about 6,000 calls for service per year. It should also be noted and understood that overtime earnings are NOT pensionable.

Firefighting and responding to emergency medical calls is a dangerous occupation. Firefighters have a 100 percent increased chance of contracting certain cancers, and are exposed to highly communicable diseases on a regular basis. We work in environments of extreme heat and stress, close quarters and conditions that can be described as “less than desirable.” These increased risk factors and exposures are brought into the firefighter’s home.

Currently, Alameda firefighters receive post-employment benefits that include health care for themselves and their spouse. The city pays for the health care plan until the retired firefighter reaches Medicare age, and after that, pays for a Medicare supplement plan at a considerably reduced rate. To qualify for this benefit, firefighters must have at least five years of service and have reached retirement age. In Alameda, the average years of service from a firefighter are 27.

Medical benefits have become more expensive for all of us, both public and private sector. Increases in the cost of health care have exceeded the provisions of the contracts, and many city employees (including police officers and firefighters) are in fact paying out of pocket for the difference in their health care. Your firefighters have been working in negotiations to solve these issues for both active and future retirees with a goal of long-term responsibility and sustainability.

The pension issue has been an issue of contention since poor market performances have affected the city’s contribution rates to CalPERS. What many of you may not know is that your police officers and firefighters have been contributing 9 percent of their salary towards the retirement system since the city joined CalPERS in the early 1990s. Again, we have actively been working in negotiations with the city to find solutions to make the system sustainable and consistent with our like workers.

The Alameda firefighters are not to blame for the city’s financial woes. It makes no sense to say that the firefighters want to “bankrupt the city.” That would be incredibly self-destructive. The name-calling, blame-placing and finger-pointing has to stop. It is counterproductive, divisive and distracts from the real issues. Energy would be much better spent in working together to find fair and equitable solutions that ensure the economic sustainability of our city. These problems were not created overnight, and solutions must be found in a measured and collaborative method.

Finally, the Alameda Firefighters Association IAFF Local 689 is not an organization that is represented by outside business agents or “union bosses.” The leadership of our organization is completely comprised of active duty Alameda firefighters who volunteer to spend their time working with the city to find solutions. They are the same people who respond on your emergencies and support a plethora of community activities in an off-duty capacity. We have been, and will continue to be, willing partners in this community to help Alameda be the best it can be for decades to come.

Domenick Weaver is the president of the Alameda Firefighters Association.


  • John says:

    Thanks for your service Domenick.

    What about other options Like:

    Volunteer firefighting is a very rewarding and valuable way to serve your community.

    I think a combination Paid and Volunteer Fire Dept to Alameda would be great for the community in many respects.

    Large communities (those with populations over 100,000) are most often protected by combination volunteer and paid departments that consist of primarily paid staff. There are very few purely paid fire departments in the United States , but those that exist are primarily found in very urban areas.
    The majority of fire departments in the United States are volunteer.

    Of the total 26,354 fire departments in the country, 19,224 are all volunteer; 3,845 are mostly volunteer; 1,407 are mostly career; and 1,878 are all career

    • Volunteers comprise 73% of firefighters in the United States.

    We might look at adding some options like this to not BK city.

  • John says:

    I know you guys are all great people and love your City. But the Dept has 16 people whose earnings and benefits cost the citizens between 200,000 – 275,000 last year.Another 55 whose earnings and benefits were between 150,000 and 200,000.

    The median expected salary for a typical Fire Fighter in the United States is $41,308. This basic market pricing report was prepared using our Certified Compensation Professionals’ analysis of survey data collected from thousands of HR departments at employers of all sizes, industries and geographies.


  • John says:

    Firefighters made the same wages and had same benefits as Safeway Clerks in 1980. Not that your job is not more important I was just comparing to private sector.

    Those jobs now pay between 9 – 20 an hour and their benefit costs around 4 an hour. Which puts them right inline with Median Salary Nationally of a Fire Fighter.

    I’m sure there is happy median between 41K and 275K. I don’t know how many thousands of qualified applicants that applied in Oakland for last fire fighting jobs but they will use Coliseum next time.

  • Mark Irons says:

    Michele. During the parcel tax campaign there was some pretty egregious spamming on Blogging Bayport where by a rabidly anti public employee commenter going by “John” posted repeatedly in rapid succession as if on Twitter. Thankfully the posts by this “John” here are reserved by comparison.

    I’ve been looking forward to The Island instituting a comment policy of using full name only.

    Moving to content, I once ran into Chief Kapler on the street and when I asked him about schedule he walked me into the station off Park and showed me the board, explaining the nine day cycle. I thought the schedule allows for 54 hours before overtime. It’s sort of apples and oranges to compare the schedule to the common 40 hour week. As for the overtime being a financial liability as Mr.Weaver claims, it has been my understanding that the benefit costs for full time employees is the exact reason for using overtime to close the schedule gap, i.e. it is cost effective. If the 54 hour number is correct, is it also correct that firefighters at 56 hours, are working two hours overtime a week? Considering they work 24 hour shifts, I’m a little muddled how two hours a week becomes a serious safety issue.

    It’s super important that the public understand details such as overtime hours not being pensionable. Also, I did not know anything about 9% contribution toward retirement or that Medicare paying any portion for retirement health care, which are both welcome facts. It’s really important to have facts. I like having an hourly break down for wages and highly approve $35 as an hourly wage. However, I understand that San Jose are the 5th highest paid fire fighters in the nation, so the statement that Alameda is at the low end of the regional pay scale is relative.

    I do know from the parcel tax debate that there is a lot of grossly distorted misinformation and twisted attitudes toward public employees who are often unjustly vilified as “greedy”. I don’t blame firefighters for gravitating to well compensated positions, nor do I think it makes sense to use grossly deficient private sector compensation as a gold standard for comparison.

    In a rotten economy, it’s not fair to single out public employees to balance our budgets on their backs, but since public safety is such a large part of the general fund (64%?)the pressure for reform in that sector is inevitable.

  • Eric says:

    John’s right. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a fireman, not because I could make a fortune doing it. Back then, you couldn’t, but now you can. If thousands of people are applying for firefighting jobs, something is out of whack. There is no free market wage balance here, and the taxpayers and the city are paying the price.

  • Jon Spangler says:

    There is far more at stake during a fire or medical emergency than I have ever seen in any supermarket produce section or checkout register. (Duh!)

    I do not shop at Safeway. but I want and need my local firefighters and paramedics to perform at a much higher level of skill and competence than what I need from a grocery clerk. And we have a top-notch fire department that is full of dedicated professionals. (Most volunteer firefighters, who are by definition part-timers, cannot possibly be as practiced and as proficient as a trained career professional.)

    The last thing that any workers in the USA need right now is more “race to the bottom” anti-worker pressure to reduce wages. Corporate profits are exorbitant and workers, still left out of this “recovery,” are starving. I do not want my City Council to exploit or demean valuable and hard-working city employees by offering them Walmart-like wages and non-benefits. Losing our highly-skilled and capable city staff would just give us the expense of having incompetent government – a costly and bad deal all around.

    I disagree with Lauren that the primary “blame” for this fiscal spat and name-calling
    belongs with Mayor Gilmore. She did not tell anyone that public employees or their unions “suck.”

    It is entirely reasonable for our City Treasurer and Auditor to raise urgent fiscal concerns and to be insistent about it. They did so in a shrill and unnecessarily blaming way, however, and their name-calling and exaggerations were counterproductive.

    As a citizen and a voter I want to be treated as an intelligent and capable adult, and to be provided with all of the pertinent information. I am sure that everyone in this public discussion wants the same respect. It is time for us to start showing that respect to each other to solve our fiscal problems.

    So far, I have heard and read somewhat less of that respect coming from those most worried about bankruptcy than from those supporting public union supporters and members. But it never hurts for everyone to pause, take a deep breath, and then start talking with each other – without name-calling and emotionalism – in order to find productive solutions sooner rather than later.

  • John says:

    You missed my point John, But Lets compare to Resident Doctors then.

    Average Resident Doctors Salaries
    The average resident’s salary is $40,000 annually as of January 2011, according to Salary List. It’s typical for doctors who are in residency programs to work more than 80 hours a week, although organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Orthopaedic Association are attempting to cap a resident’s weekly workload at 80 hours a week. Salaries for residents are usually paid for through federal funds through programs such as Medicare.

    Dept has 16 people whose earnings and benefits cost the citizens between $$ 200,000 –$$ 275,000 last year.Another 55 whose earnings and benefits were between $$ 150,000 and $$ 200,000.

    The median expected salary for a typical Fire Fighter in the United States is $41,308. This basic market pricing report was prepared using our Certified Compensation Professionals’ analysis of survey data collected from thousands of HR departments at employers of all sizes, industries and geographies.


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