After several seasons of dry weather and mandatory water restrictions, California enjoyed a brief period of record rainfall during the 2019 spring season.
Unfortunately, after falling back into a dry period, all of that new summer plant growth became kindling which sparked some of the worst fires ever in California history.
But it wasn’t just weather contributing to fires. Electrical utilities maintained by PG&E sparked at least 19 fires in 2017 and 2018, and have also been blamed for the Camp Fire that left 86 dead and destroyed the town of Paradise.
The need to keep fires contained and away from populated areas has led to a 65% rise in wages for firefighters over the last decade. The largest contributor to this sudden rise is overtime pay.
In 2011, 41 firefighters earned more than $100,000 in overtime pay. That number rose to 1,085 in 2018. According to the New York Times reporting, around 200 firefighters earned more than $300,000 in 2018, representing a third of all payroll for L.A. firefighters.
For some pundits, and perhaps even the taxpayers who fund county firefighting services, these numbers are surprising. But experts argue that after factoring in training and benefits of new firefighters, it is cheaper to pay overtime.
But there are still concerns over overtime policies. Currently, overtime is dictated by federal regulations that govern overtime, pre-negotiated contracts between management and unions, and the use of “constant staffing” models that see some firefighters in stations for a 24-hour period.
The Los Angeles country Fire Department has launched a campaign to argue for increases in revenue to increase staffing levels. This money is not required to keep services running to fight fires, as budget shortfalls resulting from wildfires are reimbursed under California’s mutual aid system that redistributes money across jurisdictions and the federal government.
Looking beyond the money, officials argue that firefighters are subjected to long hours and are at constant risk of mental and physical health problems. Meaning that some of these rising expenses are also the result of paying for lost time when firefighters are injured on the job. One fire official also said that there has been a 50% increase in medical calls and that the funding isn’t there to hire more staff.
There are also caps on overtime, but during emergencies, like wildfires, those caps get lifted.
Officials are actively working to understand the overtime system better to ensure that taxpayer money is used efficiently. But with the rising number of fires threatening California homes, a solution that all parties involved can agree on may not come easily.