Las Vegas Sun

August 28, 2014

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County considers plan to privatize airport firefighting force

County could save money in overtime costs, staff believes

Rory Reid

Rory Reid

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Randall Walker

Randall Walker

Emboldened by the Clark County Commission’s support for cutting Fire Department costs, county staff is considering a plan that would essentially privatize the firefighting force at McCarran International Airport.

Other big-city airports across the nation, including Minneapolis-St. Paul, Reno-Tahoe, Sea-Tac (Seattle-Tacoma) and Indianapolis, maintain independent fire departments, or fire authorities, with salary and benefits that are separate from the fire departments in surrounding jurisdictions.

An authority at McCarran would place the small department into the hands of Aviation Director Randall Walker. Those firefighters could unionize, then negotiate with Walker for salary and benefits, but they would not be part of the existing county firefighters union.

The county’s savings would come from transfer of 33 airport fire employees to a growing pool of firefighters who substitute for vacationing or sick colleagues at regular pay rates. Currently, absent firefighters are often replaced by an employee working overtime.

In fiscal 2009, the Fire Department paid about 700 fire personnel $14.1 million in overtime.

On the airport’s side, savings might be found in Walker’s negotiations with the new union. The airport, which is self-funded, reimburses the county for all costs associated with McCarran firefighters.

Rory Reid, chairman of the County Commission and the Democratic nominee for governor, said he wants to study the idea.

“We ought to do whatever we can to reduce personnel costs and rein in overtime, and if this helps do that we ought to take a look at it,” he said. “And if the firefighters union objects, then once again we’ll understand that they’re not as concerned with the public interest as they say they are.”

Walker said it’s an idea he is willing to explore if county commissioners are interested.

“It’s one of those things where the devil’s in the details,” he said. “I know it will work, because it works in other airports. There would have to be a lot more investigation and research.”

Fire union President Ryan Beaman said by e-mail that his union “is prepared to negotiate with the county for the new employees.” That assumes his union would represent the independent fire department.

The airport fire employees are among the Fire Department’s most senior and highest-paid employees. Across all ranks, airport firefighters’ average pay and benefits are $146,578. Insurance and retirement benefits add another $51,768 on average, bringing their total average compensation to $198,346. Throughout the Fire Department, average total firefighter compensation, all ranks, is $180,000.

When you add equipment and other expenses, fire coverage cost McCarran $7.8 million in 2009.

The airport fire team responds to a relatively small share of the 120,000 calls the department handled in 2009.

The department’s annual report says airport firefighters responded to 373 aircraft emergencies. On aircraft emergencies, all of the airport’s firefighters respond. Airport firefighters also respond, typically in two-man teams, to EMS calls, of which there were 2,581 in 2009, for total calls of 2,954.

Dividing the $7.8 million airport fire budget by total calls — EMS and aircraft emergencies — comes to about $2,640 per call. If all 120,000 Clark County Fire Department calls in 2009 had cost that much, the department would have needed a budget of $316 million. The department’s overall budget in 2009 was $138 million.

Another county concern with airport firefighters, as one elected official put it, is the perception that they are “gaming” the sick-leave system to collect more overtime. In fiscal year 2009, according the county’s employee salary list, overtime pay for airport firefighters averaged $35,746, 54 percent higher than the rest of the department’s overtime average of $23,150.

At the same time, according to a county payroll study, airport firefighters, all ranks, averaged 539 hours of sick leave in 2009, while the department’s other firefighters averaged 209 hours.

“Are they sitting around and figuring this stuff out together? I don’t know,” Commissioner Steve Sisolak told the Sun this year.

This week, Sisolak said he still wants an audit or investigation of the department’s sick-leave numbers, but only after the county and firefighters union have finished contract negotiations.

Meanwhile, Sisolak likes the idea of studying an airport fire department.

“It’s incumbent upon us to look at every possible way of saving money, and privatizing and freeing up those individuals to serve in relief and cutting more overtime is a great idea,” he added. “And it would save money for the airport so it doesn’t have to raise fees for the airlines that are so important to our economy.”

Not every commissioner agrees. Tom Collins is firmly against the idea.

“At a time when we’re trying to consolidate as much as we can, creating another department or authority is not the way to go,” Collins said. “I like the department just the way it is.”

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