Posted Under: City Employee Salaries,Fire Department Issues,Important Issues for Fort Lauderdale
Fort Lauderdale Fire and Rescue personnel using fire trucks for shopping trips. Should this happen?
A reader of our web site sent me a photograph last week of Fort Lauderdale Fire Trucks parked alongside a Publix grocery store on Sunrise and 15 Ave (photo is shown below). He was concerned when he saw that our fire and rescue personnel were shopping inside Publix while they were on duty.
What would happen if they were called to an emergency while they were shopping? Would they run out, with their arms full of groceries? The parking lot is always jammed full of cars and getting out to Sunrise or 15 Ave is difficult at best. Traffic is a nightmare there. How much extra time would it take for them to get out? Would they be able to respond to an emergency in time?
I decided to contact our Fire Chief, Jeffrey Justinak. Even though he has been our Fire Chief for less than 6 months, he has been in our Fire Department for over 23 years. I spoke to him on the shopping issue & several other issues last week. That resulting phone conversation left me with a number of concerns. I am sharing them with you here.
First, as part of a previous union contract (according to Chief Justinak), the Fire Department is authorized to go on “shopping trips” while they are on duty (and use our fire trucks that get 3-4 miles per gallon to do it). Under the current contract, Fire and Rescue personnel work one 24-hour shift at the fire station (say 8am to 8am the following day) and then have two days off. They are paid full-time salaries even though they do not work the following two days.
As part of this arrangement, all fire and rescue personnel on duty during that 24 hour period are allowed one shopping trip. The only limitation is that the trip must be within their “response zone” a certain distance from their fire house. Since the City does not provide for their meals while on duty, the fire personnel must bring their own food and drink while serving in the fire house during that 24-hour tour of duty. Chief Justinak explained that by doing this, the City saves money by not having to feed them.
But wait a minute! These folks are only there for a 24-hour period. Why can’t they purchase and bring with them (in their own vehicles), what they will need for their 24 hour shift? Why must they wait until they go on-duty to go shopping? And using expensive City Fire trucks to go on a group shopping trip seems a bit frivolous (and expensive to taxpayers). I asked Chief Justinak that. His response. “Fire and rescue personnel like to do things as a team. They like to eat together and shop together.” Well I’m sorry Chief, but I think going grocery shopping together is taking the “team concept” a bit far…
An old-timer familiar with the fire department grumbles: “Under the old system, fire and rescue personnel put in an 8-hour shift, just like everyone else. We didn’t pay them to sleep or to shop.”
Another problem with this “24-hours on-duty then 48 hours off-duty” is this: Our fire and rescue personnel are paid high, full-time salaries to provide fire and rescue services here. What happens when they are off duty? Can they work other jobs? I asked Chief Justinak about this. After some hesitation, the Chief answered: “A large portion of them do work another job”.
Another insider told me: “Don’t be surprised if you found dozens of our fire & rescue personnel working in other Fire Departments in Broward, Miami-Dade or Palm Beach counties.” I asked Chief Justinak about this. He replied: “I have no way of knowing whether that is true or not.”
But one thing is known for sure. Almost 90% of our fire and rescue personnel don’t even live in Fort Lauderdale, so they could be “double dipping” with other Departments and we wouldn’t know it. Since the average salary of fire and rescue personnel here is more than double the average salary of a Fort Lauderdale resident, they don’t need to take on other employment. But apparently they do. If Chief Justinak is right, then that other employment (during their 48 hours when they are off-duty) could be endangering Fort Lauderdale residents who need help after a heart attack or car accident.
According to the Chief, there are over 40,000 calls a year for service from our City’s fire & rescue teams. That seems like a lot, but we have 13 rescue crews on call at any given time, scattered around the 10 fire stations here in the City. If you do the math, each on-duty rescue crew gets about 8.5 calls during their 24-hour shift, or about one call every 3 hours.
That doesn’t seem like a lot of calls per crew, but how safe will that rescue crew be if they have been on duty for 23 hours, then get a last minute call to help someone in a major car accident or someone who just had a heart attack? Will they be as quick, alert and professional as they were when they started, 23 hours earlier? Now, add in the extra employment activity most of these folks apparently do. That 48-hour down time was given to them to recharge their batteries after a 24-hour shift. Instead, we find that they are using that time for extra employment elsewhere.
Is this current system risking people’s lives needlessly? And if most of these fire and rescue folks are using those 48 hours to work somewhere else, then why did we provide this to them in the first place? It doesn’t seem like they are using that time the way it’s supposed to be used. In fact, they may just be endangering themselves and others if they are using those off-duty 48 hours to do anything but rest.
The other problem with the current system is that the hardest jobs are given to the least experienced. Fire and rescue personnel bid on jobs by seniority. Most of the senior folks know to bid on the “fire-specific” shifts (ie: with the the hook and ladder trucks). They are rarely called out, and normally get a full night’s sleep. One insider mentioned we have an average of 4-6 true fires a year here in the City, so these folks don’t get called out much. Plenty of time to work out, sleep, watch TV, etc. But the rescue personnel get called out a lot more and it’s generally those personnel who have less experience and seniority. They are the ones who have to provide fire and rescue services to us on a daily basis. Shouldn’t our more experienced fire personnel be providing the services that we need the most on a daily basis?
I’ve checked with a number of large cities around the country. Most no longer provide a 24-hour-on, 48-hour-off system. Most cities I contacted have gone back to a standard 8-hour shift for all fire and rescue personnel. When I asked why, the response was: “It insures that fire and rescue personnel get the sleep they need. The system you have encourages abuse of the time they have off. If they work when they are supposed to rest, it endangers your citizens who may need help and are dependent on your first responders.”
We need to have our fire and rescue personnel alert, and capable of providing top notch service. If someone has worked another job during their last 48 hours, are they going to be as alert as someone with 48 hours of rest? Do we need to change our system back to an 8-hour shift? There are a number of other excesses I have encountered with our Fire Department (ie: double-cab rescue vehicles that cost us $20K extra per vehicle, and too many Assistant/Battalion/Division Chiefs); I’ll save those for another article.
But I have to commend our Fire Chief Jeff Justinak for speaking with me. He was frank and open in our conversation and I want to thank him for that. He wanted me to pass this on to you: “We recognize who we work for. And anytime anyone has questions, they are free to contact me directly. My office number is 954-828-6863.”
So feel free to give him a call, if you want to ask him about any of these issues. Personally, I think it’s time we re-negotiated contracts for the Fire Department. I think we need to go to an eight-hour shift and do away with any “moonlighting” that endangers our safety, and end the practice of allowing personal shopping while on duty, which uses our expensive fire vehicles as SUVs.
The problem is though, that nothing will happen. We have a Mayor and Commission who depend on the Police and Fire Unions to help them get elected, and an unqualified City Manager who does not want to “stick her neck out”. She’s only interested in maintaining the status-quo and in protecting fellow employee salaries. None of them are exhibiting any Leadership!
Once again, we the residents and taxpayers get left out. If you are concerned about this, then call your Mayor and your District Commissioner. Let them know how you feel. They may not even be aware of this issue. Who knows, you might be able to provide a public service by educating them! Their contact information is on the home page of our web site (www.abetterftlauderdale.com).