Sunday, August 14, 2016

[Kern County] SOUND OFF: Why aren’t we telling the whole story on firefighter OT?

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
Reader: So here we go again, another round of The Bakersfield Californian pointing its fingers at firefighters regarding salary (“Kern scrutinizes fire overtime pay,” Aug. 7). We’ve heard it all before. What’s really sad is that The Californian never tells the whole story. They don’t tell you that when our firefighters and their apparatus respond out of county the requesting agency pays the overtime. The apparatus actually makes money for the county. Not only that, the requesting agency pays the overtime for those firefighters called to fill in behind at local stations. The Californian never mentions that several years ago the KCFD was investigated by the Kern County grand jury and the department was not only exonerated, but complimented on the efficient manner in which it conducts its business.
The Californian doesn’t tell you how the overtime is earned. It’s about swinging a hand tool on the side of a hill somewhere for 12 hours, or punching in a 3,000- or 4,000-foot hoselay up the side of a mountain. They don’t tell you about the blown out knees and hips caused by long-term trauma and physical stress, or all the missed birthdays, anniversaries, Little League games, Christmases, or the intense competition just to get hired.
What people should remember is that the purpose of The Bakersfield Californian is to sell newspapers and make a profit. Controversy sells newspapers. If there is no controversy, then create some.
Support your firefighters.
— Glen Brewton
Price: Where to start? First, I suppose, with a refresher on the role of independent daily newspapers: Government entities, including local fire departments, operate with our tax dollars, and appropriately so. In the hierarchy of essential services, most of us would place fire protection right at the top, along with law enforcement. So there’s no question that funding firefighters’ salaries with tax dollars is money well spent. But taxpayers have a right to demand that their money be spent judiciously.
Fire department officials, county supervisors and grand jurys are tasked with that. But politics, both internal and external, can get in the way of a local government’s ability to self monitor and especially its ability to revamp entrenched systems. That’s where independent media’s ability to call attention to inefficiencies and inequities becomes essential. Call it “pointing their fingers” if you like. I call it doing our job.
We never tell the whole story? Not in one day’s package of stories, we don’t — not even in James Burger’s comprehensive look at who and how OT dollars — $23.2 million in the most recent fiscal year — are distributed to county firefighters. But over time, we have reported most of what you accuse us of ignoring — including that grand jury exoneration you claim we’ve never mentioned. Here’s a portion of our report from January 2004:
“A Kern County grand jury report on the county’s Fire Department says there is nothing wrong with its overtime policy and practices — but adds there is room for improvement. The report on overtime, released Monday, came about in part after a series of Californian articles brought the issue before the public.
“The jury’s recommendations include some approaches described in recent Californian articles, including expanding the use of relief firefighters and shifting overtime to lower-paid firefighters. The report states that overtime accounts for about 41 percent of the department’s overall payroll costs and is excessive when compared to what the Sheriff’s Department pays deputies. However, the report states the Fire Department’s overtime costs compare favorably with fire agencies in other counties with similar operations and out-of-county firefighting services.
“(Then-) Fire Chief Dennis Thompson said the department is preparing a response to the report. ‘It’s a fair report. There’s a number of recommendations we’re looking at now,’ Thompson said.
“The recommendations include increasing the department’s pool of relief firefighters who fill in for sick and vacationing staffers. Using regular firefighters to fill those slots has traditionally been the highest overtime cost for the department.”
Yes, that grand jury “exoneration” — which also identified areas in need of change — came about largely because of a news report very much like the one you’re criticizing here.
So, back to Sunday’s report. You cite some alleged omissions. I’ll ask you to read the article again. The story very clearly explains that “when our firefighters and their apparatus respond out of county the requesting agency pays the overtime.” From Burger’s story: “Marshall also points out that overtime county firefighters work battling wildland fires is covered by repayments from state and federal government agencies. (Capt. Tyler) Townsend’s weeks of work on the Erskine Fire is a great example, Marshall said. ‘For every dollar we give Tyler, we get paid $1.11,’ Marshall said.”
Another point: You noted that “the apparatus actually makes money for the county.” But, as Burger reminds me, he previously reported that Marshall admits that the fire department doesn’t save that money to cover replacement of fire apparatus. Instead, the money is used to fund firefighter salaries, meaning there is no money to replace a fire engine when it reaches the end of its usable life.
I beg to differ that The Californian doesn’t report on the difficulty of a firefighter’s job or the highly competitive nature of departmental hiring. Anyone who paid attention to our comprehensive coverage of the recent Erskine Fire knows the job’s challenges have been well chronicled in these pages. 
I had to roll my eyes at this statement of yours: “If there is no controversy, then create some.” Plenty of hand-wringing is taking place in the County Administrative Building these days over shrinking budgets and growing demands. Some public safety officials have campaigned hard to keep their budgets intact even as other departments are devastated. That’s not our manufactured controversy — that’s county government’s controversy, born of a decimated oil economy and employee union obligations, among other factors. So ... please. The issues Burger raised are exactly the issues county officials should be discussing — and I’ll wager they are, thanks greatly to his reporting.
You’re criticizing The Californian for trying to “sell newspapers and make a profit”? You’re describing the business model of a free and independent press. Do you think these inefficiencies would be coming to light if the only media in town were government sanctioned? Me neither.
Finally, I would argue that this kind of reporting “supports your firefighters” quite well. When a flawed system of OT compensation butts heads with plunging tax revenues, something eventually has to give. But what? Firefighters’ jobs? Or aspects of the existing OT system? I vote to modify the system and protect the jobs.
August 12, 2016
The Bakersfield Californian
By Robert Price

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