by Elektra Kruger
We urgently need to hire more firefighters because there is currently a major imbalance between firefighter hiring and attrition within the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD).
The LAFD has not hired a single firefighter in over five years. The last recruit training class graduated in February, 2009. The limited number of firefighters and paramedics available fail to adequately staff existing fire companies and rescue ambulances.
In fiscal year (FY) 2008-2009, the LAFD had roughly 3,600 sworn members. By late 2013, through attrition, that number dropped to around 3,100. To deal with ongoing attrition, the LAFD recently resorted to using a Recall System to fill daily staffing vacancies at the 106 fire stations when there are not enough members to keep an existing fire company or rescue ambulance in service.
A “Recall” is generally reserved for a major emergency, such as an earthquake or major fire, and need to pull in a larger deployable field force. Having to depend on the Recall System to fill daily field vacancies suggests that the LAFD is facing a severe staffing crisis.
In the 2013-2014 FY, the LAFD is scheduled to hire one recruit class of 70 firefighters which, based on a historic 20% attrition rate, will result in approximately 55 actual recruits who will continue on to become members of the LAFD. These will not enter the field until June, 2014. At the same time, 60 current sworn members must exit the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, (DROP), before June 30, 2014. That plan was initiated to retain as many existing firefighters as possible beyond standard retirement age. This will leave us with even fewer firefighters on the payroll than we have today.
Mandatory retirements via the DROP program will continue with 120 anticipated during FY 2014-2015 and 178 during FY 2015-2016. Shockingly, it would take the LAFD academy up to April of 2018 to hire enough firefighters and paramedics to meet minimum capacity.
Due to this crisis, in mid-October, Councilmember Mike Bonin submitted a Motion to City Council asking that they instruct the LAFD, the LA City Administrative Officer, and the City’s Personnel Department to report on:
•How the Fire Department ended up in this situation in the first place ,
and what processes should have been in place to catch this staffing
•Options for pushing up the start date of the first reopened Drill Tower (academy), or increasing the number of Drill Tower (academy) classes.
•Staffing needs of the Recruit Training Section to possibly open a second Drill
•Staffing needs of the Public Safety Division of the Personnel
Department to assist with potentially processing additional firefighter
The Motion was referred to both the City Council’s Public Safety Committee and Personnel Committee for their review and recommendations.
In late January 2014, James Featherstone, the Interim Fire Chief, and Margaret Whelan, the General Manager of the City’s Personnel Department, submitted a joint report to the City Council in response to these points. The report stated that, as a result of the economic downturn, among other programs, in FY 2011-2012, a revised staffing plan called for a three-year reduction of 318 sworn firefighters primarily through attrition.
This plan projected that new hiring and the reopening of the Drill Tower (academy) would be required by FY 2013-2014 and, accordingly, two classes of 70 firefighters each were funded for the current year. However, this plan did not take into account promotions from the existing field force, nor, creation of new positions which drew from the existing pool of sworn field force firefighters. This was being done without benefit of replacement of sworn members through even a single recruit class during this time period. This greatly impacted current sworn field staffing levels leaving the Department to depend on overtime, (both voluntary and involuntary), and the Recall System as needed to fill even regular daily staffing needs.
Despite the reopening of Recruit Training Academy classes, one scheduled to begin January 27, 2014, and one on June 16, 2014, the Department will still be challenged in it’s ability to fill even the minimum number of needed staffing positions during FY 2014 to 2015 and 2015 to 2016, due to the high number of required exits from the Deferred Retirement Option Plan. The number of enrollees scheduled to exit the DROP Program in FY 2013 to 2014 = 60, FY 2014 to 2015 = 120 and FY 2015 to 2016 = 175. A typical Recruit Training class has 70 members of which, historically, about 20% drop out due to attrition leaving 55 per class to shore up the Department’s sworn field force.
Responding to the possibility of pushing up the start date of the first reopened Drill Tower, increasing the number of Drill Tower classes and considering opening a second Drill Tower:
The last Recruit Training Academy class at Drill Tower 81 graduated in 2009, and numerous repairs and upgrades to the equipment and infrastructure of the facility is needed to once again become “instruction-ready”. The old curriculum needs to be reviewed and updated. These were completed in late December, 2013, so to have the first reopened Drill Tower class begin earlier than January would have been impossible. The Recruit Training course lasts 20 weeks so it would be impossible to begin a second class any earlier than the next Recruit Training class scheduled to begin June 16, 2014. There is a second smaller, Drill Tower 40, which could be opened for a smaller Recruit Training class of 35. However, it too requires equipment and infrastructure upgrades. And to re-deploy even more sworn staff from the field to serve as instructors in this second Drill Tower would further compound the field vacancy factor already created by reassigning sworn firefighters from regular field duties to serve as instructors in Drill Tower 81. This would result in a field vacancy factor that would create a need to backfill the field force with constant overtime staffing.
Responding to the question of increased Personnel Staffing needs to assist with processing an increased number of firefighter applications:
When firefighter hiring ceased in 2009, personnel department staff assigned to process firefighter applications was reassigned. Due to the Early Retirement Incentive Program, (ERIP), initiated in 2010, layoffs and budget reductions, staffing levels were reduced by 33%. While hiring has begun increasing again it, by no means, yet matches its former level and certainly could not take on the task of processing a greater number of firefighter applications without additional staff. Processing the January and June 2014 candidates already significantly strained the Personnel Department’s As-Needed budget and staffing that would otherwise have been dedicated to police officer hiring. Costs for additional administrative support would run from $1.14 million for three academy classes per year to $1.37 million for five classes per year.
This joint Fire Department/Personnel Committee report was forwarded to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee for their further review and recommendations. At their January 24, 2014 meeting, the committee directed the fire department, the City Administrative Officer, with input from firefighter unions, to report on the feasibility of extending the DROP program by one year, (i.e. no mandatory exits for an additional year). They also wanted local hospital executives and associations to consider reducing firefighter wait time at hospitals after delivering patients in need of emergency medical care. This report should to be studied by the Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates as well and also give their give their input to the Publics Safety Committee. At this time there is a shortage of Captains in many neighborhoods since they are not being replaced because of budget constraints. Stations are presently sharing Captains on a rotating basis in order to cover the shortage.
Editor’s Note: Electra Kruger is a community activist, who sits on the FTDNC and STNC Land Use Committees and writes for the NVR