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September 30, 2014

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New plan to curtail Clark County firefighter overtime

Steve Smith

Steve Smith

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Clark County is taking yet another swipe at firefighter overtime costs, with plans to reassign some administrators to regular duty and shut down four units, allowing their duties to be covered by city teams.

The moves, detailed in a memo Thursday by County Manager Virginia Valentine and scheduled to be implemented this month, will free 42 county fire employees — including six captains, 12 engineers, 18 firefighters and others — to fill in for other captains, engineers and firefighters on sick leave, vacation or absent for other reasons. Using on-duty personnel to cover absences means the county pays them straight time, not overtime.

Administrative positions that would be vacated include public information officer, logistic officer, EMS supervisor and fire systems coordinator.

The savings for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is estimated at $4.5 million.

The four units that will be shut down are heavy rescue, hazardous materials and two associated rescues. Shuttering the units will reduce “the imbalance of mutual aid calls that our fire department responds to within the city’s jurisdictions,” Valentine said.

Her memo came a day after the county began another overtime-cutting effort.

On Wednesday, the Fire Department ended full-time staffing of two pieces of equipment: a “mobile air unit,” which hauls breathing apparatus to fire scenes, and a water tender, another on-call truck that ferries extra water to scenes when hydrants can’t be found. The trucks will still be available when needed, but the firefighters who used to sit with them around the clock will become part of the team filling in for absent colleagues.

None of these moves will affect response times, Valentine wrote, because while the technical rescue and hazmat units sometimes go on a first call with emergency medical service units, “the incidents to which these units respond can be absorbed by the remaining engine company within each station.”

Combined, the moves could cut overtime by $5.5 million, which represents 39 percent of fiscal year 2009’s overtime total of $14.1 million.

Overtime is a big part of the reason the average firefighter’s pay and benefits are $180,000 annually.

In the annals of county/firefighter dealings, long colored by the firefighters union’s perceived political power, this move “is huge,” one local political consultant said. “I never thought I’d actually see the county get the backbone to do it.”

Ryan Beaman, president of the county firefighters union, could not be reached for comment.

Valentine’s direction could be thwarted were a commissioner to ask for a public discussion and vote on the plan.

Based on the response of commissioners, including one who is such a Fire Department fan that a fire helmet rests on a hat rack in his county office, it appears the proposal will be adopted.

“I love it,” said Commissioner Tom Collins, whose sixth-floor office is home to the helmet. “I’m real proud of the (Fire) Chief (Steve Smith). I’m very impressed with him working to streamline the effectiveness of our Fire Department.”

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, another fire union supporter, called the moves “good news.”

“Like we said all along, we have to get a handle on overtime, and this seems to do that without taking away the ability to do the job,” she said.

Support also came from Commissioner Susan Brager.

“We really need to dig in, and this sounds like a good way to get more money and get rid of overtime and keep people working,” she said.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, the most vocal critic of firefighter pay over the past year, said the Fire Department has “exhibited real creativity and innovation, and they need to be applauded.”

“I’m real supportive of the idea of cutting back and not having any sacred cows,” he added. “I think we’re sending a message ... that we do value the taxpayer dollar and we’re taking this budget crisis seriously.”

In May, commissioners approved a budget that addressed a $57 million deficit largely by depleting capital accounts and reserve funds. The county has more than 1,000 unfilled positions and is expected to lay off about 100 people soon.

Meanwhile, next year’s tax revenue picture isn’t expected to be much better.

The union’s oft-repeated reply to concerns over its overtime costs has been that if the county wants to cut overtime, it needs to hire more firefighters. In April, though, the union balked when the county announced it was going to hold off-year examinations to promote more firefighters to engineer, a move intended to cut into expensive engineer overtime. By contract, the union said, the test can only be given every other year.

Commission Chairman Rory Reid, who is running for governor, said Valentine’s proposals won’t be the last county move on this issue.

“We’re going to keep doing what’s in the public interest to totally reform our Fire Department so that it’s efficient,” he said. “Just like businesses have to change how they do things during economic downturns, so should the Fire Department.”

Additional cost savings could come in two ways.

• The firefighters union and the county are in contract negotiations. Although hopes are high that savings will result from union concessions, no one is holding his breath after talks between Las Vegas and its firefighters union reached an impasse.

• The second avenue is the Fire Department’s plan to cut costs by 8 percent, plans that were required of each county department. For the Fire Department, an 8 percent cut equals about $11 million. Part of the department’s plan is to develop a shared-services agreement with Las Vegas and North Las Vegas to place underused equipment on-call. This, too, would free more engineers and firefighters to cover for absent colleagues at straight pay.

Another ambitious county idea would be to shutter fire stations, allowing neighboring jurisdictions to cover. To make the plan work, EMS calls would be “triaged,” or prioritized, to weed out those that don’t require an ambulance. Doing so would likely cut greatly into the number of times that county ambulances go out on calls, theoretically giving them more time to cover a broader area.

County sources said this last idea won’t be seriously considered unless the economy worsens. Although Clark County has the plan and the will, neighboring jurisdictions “aren’t ready to make that call just yet,” a source said.

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