LOS ANGELES -- Overtime pay for the Los Angeles Fire Department soared 60 percent over the last decade while its ranks grew just 17 percent, but there is no real effort to rein in the expense despite the city's budget crisis.
An analysis by the Los Angeles Daily News, a sister newspaper of the Daily Breeze, found that Los Angeles firefighters now average six times more overtime than their counterparts in Chicago, five times more than in Houston and two times more than in San Diego - a city that has roughly the same ratio of firefighters to residents as Los Angeles.
The Daily News analysis found:
Fifty-six firefighters earned at least $100,000 in overtime on top of their annual salaries last year, up from three in 1999 and 10 in 2005.
The average Los Angeles firefighter earned about $36,500 in overtime in 2008, compared with $29,000 in 1999. Their average salary and overtime compensation totaled $117,000.
The department's top earner racked up a total of $570,276 in overtime in the last three years, including $206,685 in 2006. His three-year overtime total was nearly double his base salary for that period.
Recruits earn overtime for after-hours remedial training "if they feel the need for more time to grasp the skills," a department spokeswoman said.
Over the past 10 years, the Fire Department has increased its staffing by 17 percent to 3,586 firefighters, as the city and its needs have grown.
Nevertheless, officials and union leaders say, massive amounts of overtime are still needed.
One reason is that National Fire Protection Association guidelines require the department to staff 1,104 positions at the city's 106 fire stations around the clock.
Then there are the 120 vacancies on the force - positions that intentionally have been left unfilled.
In the long run, officials say, it is cheaper to pay overtime than to hire more firefighters, whose annual salary, benefits and training add up to at least $100,000 each.
"We are sensitive to the fact that the city's budget is in a difficult situation right now," said Fire Chief Douglas Barry, a 34- year veteran of the department. "So we want to do all that we can to be more effective and more efficient in how we operate."
But taxpayer advocates call the ballooning overtime bill a "racket" designed to enrich firefighters at taxpayer expense. Even a recently retired LAFD captain said the staffing system needs to be overhauled.
Critics also point out that other departments operate with lower staffing levels without jeopardizing public safety.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department, for instance, assigns three firefighters to each engine, while the city agency requires four on a rig that is the same size.
Even cities like San Diego - which, like Los Angeles, requires four firefighters per rig and has roughly one firefighter per 1,100 residents - operate with significantly less overtime.
And while the vast majority of L.A.'s calls are for medical emergencies rather than fires, just one-fifth of city firefighters are cross-trained as paramedics.
"We are sending a huge ladder truck and engine to injuries when they really need (only) a small ambulance," said William Ernst, who retired as a captain a month ago.
"They send the big trucks on every person who needs a Band-Aid," he said.
Barry said he is looking at ways to trim overtime costs incurred by firefighters deployed to ensure public safety at marches, awards shows and other events - but those account for only a fraction of overtime expenses.
Events staffed by the LAFD last month included a Police Academy picnic, a gathering at the Playboy Mansion and a series of "Jimmy Kimmel Live" events.
While the department is reimbursed by event organizers for work on the day of the event, the city pays for planning and advance walk- throughs. During a recent 10-day period, the department sent firefighters to 25 separate events.
Apart from trying to reduce overtime at these events, however, the department has not been given any directive from the city to reduce overtime costs.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is not planning to push for changes in firefighter scheduling, according to his spokesman.
"The mayor believes that Los Angeles has the best trained, most professional firefighters in the country, and that they deserve to be fairly compensated for putting their lives on the line to keep L.A. residents safe," mayoral spokesman Matt Szabo said in a written statement.
"The mayor is not interested in getting rid of constant staffing, or any other measure which would take firefighters out of the stations.
"But he is confident that our firefighters will do their duty as public servants by sharing in the sacrifice required to prevent layoffs and maintain other critical city services."
Some city officials, however, say they are taking a look at the growing cost of overtime - especially at a time when the city is eyeing layoffs and service cuts to bridge a $530 million budget shortfall.
In all but one of the last 10 years, overtime increased annually in the department. Last year, the LAFD paid $139 million in overtime, up from $86 million in 1999. Today, nearly a quarter of the department's $562 million budget goes toward overtime.
Los Angeles City Councilman Greig Smith, a member of the council's Budget and Finance Committee, said the city is making a number of cuts and the LAFD's overtime should be no exception.
"This year, more than ever, we're going to scrape for every penny we can find," Smith said. "We've never had to address this issue with the kind of deep cuts we've had to make. Now we have to look at an efficiency measure, including overtime."
Smith said he would push hard to change the department's constant staffing model to one that links personnel levels to how many calls each station handles.
"If you don't eliminate it, you have to upstaff the department," he said. "Do you bring in additional people to call on, or have a smaller department with constant staffing? It's one or the other."
Members of the Los Angeles Fire Commission, a civilian panel appointed by the mayor to oversee the Fire Department, did not return phone calls.
Critics say the city can't move fast enough to slash the overtime.
"This is standard operating procedure in a city that recognizes only two interests - developers and public employee unions. And the public employee unions have a headlock on City Hall," said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
"If they want something, they get it. And they love overtime. It's an absolute racket."
The Fire Department and its unions say that paying overtime is not only a question of compensation, but one of public safety.
"We understand we've got to tighten the belt," said Capt. Stephen Ruda, a Fire Department spokesman. "But when it comes to saving lives and saving properties, that's our priority."
Paying overtime is cheaper than hiring new firefighters because the LAFD does not pay pension costs on overtime, said Mark Davis, a Fire Department analyst at the City Administrative Office. Pension costs make up almost 30 percent of pay for firefighters, and Davis said that figuring is climbing.
"It is today, and will be in the future," he said, "cheaper to staff on overtime, rather than incur all the costs associated with pensions and health and welfare for new employees."
Pat McOsker, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, defended the overtime pay for firefighters, saying they earn every penny.
"We work overtime because the people of Los Angeles need us to and because the Fire Department and elected city officials insist on it," McOsker said. "They deserve commendations for that. Oftentimes, they are relieving others who are forced to work overtime."