Investigations

Austin Fire Department reduces overtime but inspectors still strained

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- The Austin Fire Department has shored up its staffing and significantly reduced overtime hours, one year after a KXAN investigation found skyrocketing overtime that cost millions and triggered a city audit.

In fiscal year 2017, AFD burned through more than $21 million in overtime, leading all city departments. That unexpectedly high use of overtime required the Austin City Council in May of 2017 to pass an ordinance freeing $3.5 million in additional funds so AFD could meet payroll. Nearly the end of the fiscal year, AFD's overtime spending is now less than half of what it was, at $9.6 million. 

Last year, some of the highest users of overtime at AFD were inspectors, who check and approve fire safety equipment in buildings throughout the city. Despite staffing improvements and an expected $6 million reduction in overtime pay compared to last year, AFD inspectors are again logging high amounts of overtime, according to payroll and inspection records obtained by KXAN.

Fire Marshal Rob Vires said potential fee increases in the coming year’s budget should allow him to add four inspectors to his team of 21, but with the rate of growth in Austin he said he could use a lot more than that.

“The influx, I believe there's been a 45 percent growth in the inspections we do alone that have happened over the past five years,” said Vires. “To do all the inspections around, we could almost double our staff.”

A KXAN review of inspection records found inspectors are under pressure to perform significant numbers of inspections to keep up with yearly checks and new construction.

We're doing much better than last year...

For example, last fiscal year one AFD inspector Ronald Gil, who specializes in new high rise and office building inspections, worked over 1,000 hours of overtime earning him $78,599, which was the third highest amount of overtime pay of any AFD employee. This fiscal year he’s on track to earn the most overtime in the department with more than 600 hours and over $48,000 so far.

On Gil’s busiest day in 2017, on June 26, he inspected smoke detectors and other equipment on 32 floors and the basement of the ALOFT hotel downtown and the building’s shell. He then checked four buildings in an apartment complex off Riverside in South Austin and then one floor of a new commercial building in the Latana development on Southwest Parkway in southwest Austin, according to inspection records obtained by KXAN.

Vires said his inspectors’ workloads are monitored and tracked through a calendar system that plans their days ahead of time. Inspectors typically work 10 hour days, doing six to eight hours of inspecting and using the remainder for paperwork and administrative tasks, he said. All inspectors are certified fire fighters.

“All of our inspectors are pros, and we make sure to watch over them and make sure what they're doing is doing the right thing for the citizens so at the end of the day we're not missing something where we could cause a problem down the road,” Vires said.

Each inspection varies depending on the type of inspection happening and the type of building. For instance, a sprinkler system in a small convenience store would be much quicker to check than a brand new system in a new 30 story high rise, Vires said.

There is no specific benchmark or national standard for how long an inspector would spend on a particular inspection because buildings vary to such large degree, Vires said. 

Since inspectors daily schedules can be fully packed a week in advance, AFD inspectors also perform “after-hours” inspections, which accrue overtime paid by the party requesting the inspection. The overtime is voluntary. Those after-hours inspections allow developers and contractors to work at their own pace, Vires said.

In fiscal year 2017, customers paid over $59,500 of Gil's overtime, which was more than 80 percent of his yearly total, according to AFD. Gil earns over $104,450 in base salary, city data shows.

'We Were Stretched Thin'

Following KXAN’s investigation last year, City Council called for an audit of AFD’s use of overtime. That audit found AFD was understaffed for years and reliant on overtime to meet staffing requirements. Auditors found AFD management was aware of ballooning overtime but did not put adequate measures in place to reduce it. The probe also found many firefighters using more sick leave on weekends, Fridays and Mondays, indicating the sick leave was used for vacation time especially when no vacation slots remained.

“We're doing much better than last year. Last year, at this time, we were having repeated meetings with the city management about our overtime challenges,” said Interim Fire Chief Tom Dodds.

AFD said the increase in overtime was due to a confluence of factors: staffing shortages, a four-person staffing requirement for all fire equipment, a federal consent decree that slowed hiring and baby boomers retiring.

To make ends meet, AFD moved some uniform personnel to operations positions, meaning uniformed staffers were riding out on calls temporarily.

“What that meant was work in staff sections was not getting done. We were stretched thin all the way across the board,” Dodds said. "The thing that we changed the most was we are aggressively hiring cadets, because that is the one thing we can do to turn this situation around." 

To do that, AFD is overlapping academies to bring more cadets through the program. Typically AFD would start two classes in a year's time. This year, they've started five and filled 75 vacancies. 

KXAN brought the latest numbers from AFD to Council Member Jimmy Flannigan.

"I'm excited to see a reduction in the overtime expenses. It doesn't necessarily mean that those are all dollars that are now available in the general fund because we've also hired more firefighters, we also need to build more fire stations. It really is about maximizing the value of the taxpayer dollar,” he said.

To do that, Flannigan says City Council needs to focus on what he calls the hard choices and appropriately fund departments on the front end, so they don’t have to come back and ask for more money.

After Monday's proposed budget presentation to City Council, City Manager Spencer Cronk told KXAN, "With the management of every department, it's critical that we are constantly looking at how overtime is allocated and then how that impacts our budget. I'm really proud of the work that our fire department did over the last year to really right size the overtime costs. And we look through that and make sure every department is thinking about that in the same way."  

But AFD overtime consumes just a portion of the city’s overall budget.

KXAN’s previous investigation found soaring overtime use, with the city’s combined overtime spending reaching over $71 million in fiscal year 2016 and more than $77 million in fiscal year 2017. In some cases, city employees, including police officers, doubled their salaries with overtime.

Public safety departments — police, fire and emergency medical services — consistently use the most overtime. The city’s water and energy utilities also consistently use large chunks of OT.

Austin’s 2016 overtime total was larger than Dallas’, which has significantly more employees. Overall, Austin’s overtime spending per employee in 2016 was higher than every major Texas city, according to records obtained from Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso and San Antonio.

City officials said Austin racks up so much overtime because of staffing shortages in some departments, employee retention, natural disasters, massive planned events and the grind of keeping the city staffed and functioning 24 hours a day.

AFD’s reduction in overtime appears to be helping the city drive down overtime costs overall. The city paid about $211,518 per day in overtime costs last fiscal year; this year it is down to roughly $189,500.

Most city departments used about the same amount or less overtime, year over year. Austin Energy appears on track to exceed last year’s total -- $7.33 million -- by a few percentage points. Fleet services has already exceeded its total use of overtime from last year, $530,859, by more than $100,000.

 


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