San Bernardino Public Safety Attrition

By Ryan Hagen, The Sun
Posted: 05/02/15, 12:49 PM PDT |

SAN BERNARDINO >> If the reservoir of veteran firefighters in the city developed a leak in the Great Recession and the crack widened with the 2012 bankruptcy filing, then it’s in 2015 that the dam broke.

Frustrated employees in both the Police and Fire departments have warned for years that actions city officials were taking to try to get the insolvent city on sustainable financial footing were leading unsustainable numbers of seasoned police and firefighters to look to other agencies for work – endangering public safety.

Both departments reduced staffing in past years, but now, with working conditions imposed as part of the bankruptcy process limiting the compensation of both groups, they’re trying with mixed success to hire faster than employees leave.

Firefighters, particularly, have fled in 2015.

According to numbers provided by the city’s Human Resources Division, 10 firefighters have stopped working for the city in the past five months – more than the previous four years combined, and more than triple the average for 2005-2014.

That’s nearly one-tenth of a force that employed 112 fire safety employees on the last day of 2014, according to Human Resources Division Manager Helen Tran.

One of those reluctant departures is Nathan Cooke, a battalion chief who transferred from San Bernardino to a fire department in the South Bay after years of resisting what he called a sense of constant threat and under appreciation.

“We waited and we waited and we held on as long as we could to continue to serve the community,” said Cooke, echoing many firefighters who lament that it’s gone from a ‘dream department’ to an unpleasant stepping stone. “I think you’re going to see a mass exodus from the city of San Bernardino Fire Department. First and foremost, the morale is the lowest I’ve ever seen it, and I was there approximately 15 years.”

Leaders of the unions representing firefighters and police – who have watched six officers leave this year, putting the Police Department slightly below the 10-year average of nearly 16 departures per year – give similarly downcast predictions for the ability to hang onto current employees, at least as long as the City Council and administration continue their current stance.

Those leaders counter that the stance is born of financial necessity – and an unnecessarily adversarial approach by union leaders.

“Every step we take, we’re sued by fire (union leaders), but we need to be good stewards of the public’s money,” said Councilman Fred Shorett, who has often tangled with the union over the years. “It’s not that we’re attacking anyone. We’re in bankruptcy, and even if we weren’t in bankruptcy, we have a responsibility to be as efficient as possible.”

Generally, lawsuits by the fire union have attempted to stop reductions to firefighters’ compensation. Salary for police and firefighters, which is mandated by the city charter to be the average of what 10 like-sized cities pay for the same positions, hasn’t been directly reduced, but the city has imposed benefit reductions that limit take-home pay.

The city has also openly talked for months about paying Cal Fire or San Bernardino County Fire to provide fire services if that proves to be less expensive than maintaining its own department. With a several-month lag time between when firefighters start looking for a new job and when another agency hires them, City Manager Allen Parker said that would account for the recent surge in departures.

So it’s not surprising, nor is it particularly troubling compared to the turnover the city has had in all departments for years, Parker said.

“There’s always a discussion: Do you fill vacancies or do you fill it through overtime?” Parker said. “It takes a long time to fill a vacancy – six months or longer in both police and fire.”

The city’s spending on overtime for firefighters is on track to be between $6.8 million and $7 million this year, he said, roughly on track with previous years. (The city had earlier planned to lower that number, in part by cutting the equivalent of 1.5 of its 12 stations and “browning out” another when administrators determine that conditions warrant it.)

Those brown-outs are happening – once a month or more since the City Council authorized them in October, according to Battalion Chief Daniel Harker – partly to reduce overtime costs but mostly to reduce strain on overworked firefighters.

“They’ll reach times when, just due to the vacancies of the day, we’ll try not to work somebody over four days straight, because after four days straight (of 24-hour shifts) it becomes quite a strain on the person doing their job.”

Harker added that the adversarial relationship between the city and firefighters is also a strain, and isn’t new.

“I’ve been here 20 years, and when I got here there would be fights back and forth,” he said. “I’m not sure why it dates back so far, but it does. The bankruptcy obviously adds to it.”

The turnover rate in the previous 10 years – not counting 2015 – has been an unusually stable 2 percent for firefighters and 6 percent for police, according to Human Resources.

Not a single firefighter left in 2012, the year the city filed for bankruptcy, and only two left in 2013.

By contrast, the first year of the city’s bankruptcy saw about one in four employees leave citywide.

And turnover among executives – which exceeded 50 percent in 2013 – has long been abnormally high, averaging 24 percent since 2004, according to an analysis by Management Partners, the company San Bernardino hired to help them through the bankruptcy. In that 10 years, there have been five city managers, police chiefs and Public Works directors; four finance directors and fire chiefs have rotated through.

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