Seattle FD staff shortage forces extreme hours, $37M of OT
The cost of overtime in 2021 broke a department record, and the city continues to grapple with understaffing on shifts
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — Last Christmas Eve, Seattle firefighter Daniel Kieta clocked in to work a 24-hour shift. He worked another 24 hours the next day, and after a day's rest, put in a second 48-hour shift, logging 130 hours – all overtime – in the final week of the year.
It was the most extreme week for Kieta, who worked the most hours of any city employee last year. But it was not an anomaly for the 51-year-old firefighter, or for the Seattle Fire Department.
SFD paid out $37.7 million in overtime last year, a 49% increase over 2019 and the most in department history, as it grappled with an uptick in emergencies, shouldered a broader workload and lost firefighters. The department says "unprecedented staffing shortages" are continuing.
SFD responded to more calls last year with fewer staff than in 2019, a 6% increase in the number of responses per firefighter. The department's uniformed staff slipped to 965 in June — the lowest level going back to at least 2001, department records show — before rebounding with new hires.
Citywide, ranked by the number of hours they were paid to work, the top 30 city employees were all firefighters. The top 10 worked more than 4,000 hours — equivalent to working two years of 40-hour work weeks within the span of one year — while Kieta logged more than 4,900 hours, making him the 15th highest-paid city employee at $341,410. The highest wage earner was fire Capt. Rory Dees, 64, who put in more than 4,300 hours and grossed $405,020.
"We do have concerns all the time about individuals working too much overtime, too many hours in a row," Harold Scoggins, the fire department's chief, said in an interview. "We won't be able to solve this until we can get our staffing all the way full," he said, adding that he is "incredibly proud" of firefighters who have stepped up to work overtime
The greater workload doesn't appear to have contributed to slower response times or a higher rate of injury, according to department data. But at times last year, the department did not meet staffing minimums and couldn't operate some fire engines or other units, Scoggins said. On three days in December, staffing was so low at a station in Beacon Hill that it placed its engine out of service and only a battalion chief was available to respond.
The department did not make Kieta or Dees available for interviews for this story.
"I have continued to go above and beyond to fulfill my duty as a public servant for the Seattle community during a time where it's been needed most," Dees said in a statement, adding that it hasn't been easy on his family. "For all of us who have worked overtime, I think I speak collectively in that we feel we have made a positive difference by helping to respond to our residents' fire and medical emergencies."
Much of the increased overtime has been driven by COVID-19. SFD staffers provided more than 230,000 vaccines last year, at sites from pop-up clinics to Mariners and Sounders games, and administered more than 250,000 tests.
The department has had to plug gaps resulting from the dozens of firefighters who left the department or took leave in the fourth quarter of 2021 because they did not comply with the city's vaccine requirement.
According to SFD, 44 firefighters retired, 10 resigned and 21 were fired from the department in the nine months following the announcement of the vaccine requirement. As of May, another 19 were on extended leave from the department, seeking exemptions from the policy.
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While the department does not have data on why each firefighter left, a spokesperson said "there is one retirement that clearly related to the mandate," and that "some additional retirements may have occurred in response to the mandate, although the retirees did not explicitly state such reason."
Other temporary stressors — like a six-person team staffing a truck and medic unit added in West Seattle in June 2020 to respond to emergencies during the closure of the West Seattle Bridge — contributed to the number of hours worked. But the department is also understaffed for its daily operations.
At different points throughout the day, SFD requires between 216 and 220 uniformed personnel to be on duty in order to meet minimum staffing requirements. The department says it needs 1,083 personnel in total to meet full staffing.
As of this month, SFD said it had 1,026 uniformed staff, or 57 positions shy of full staffing. The department said they've met minimum staffing requirements just 32% of the time since the beginning of the year. On days when SFD is understaffed, anywhere from one to "a few" of the department's 69 apparatuses can be out of service, according to a spokesperson.
"As a result of normal and expected retirements and the failure of the department to hire enough fire fighters over the last few years, the Seattle Fire Department is extremely understaffed," International Association of Fire Fighters Local 27 President Kenny Stuart said in a written statement.
"On a daily basis our firefighters and paramedics are being asked to work extra shifts to cover these vacancies to ensure that the people of Seattle are protected at all times, and they are doing just that," he added.
Before Scoggins took over as chief in 2015, the department intentionally kept open some vacancies, believing that it was more cost-effective to the city to have firefighters work overtime than bringing on more full-time employees. Overtime pay can also have longer-term financial consequences, as it is included in firefighters' compensation that counts toward their pensions.
After more than a decade of hiring an average of 25 recruits a year, the department has expanded its hiring in recent years. SFD has hired 124 recruits this year, though the new hires must attend a 15-plus-week academy and complete a nine-month probationary period before they become sworn firefighters.
According to Scoggins, there is no shortage of prospective recruits applying, but the department has struggled to grow the academies to train larger class sizes and keep up with the number of firefighters quitting or retiring from the department.
"We are an organization in transition from one generation to the next," Scoggins said, noting that the department has hired around 400 new firefighters in his seven years as chief.
Department and union officials are projecting severe staff shortages for months to come. In July, SFD and the union agreed to a temporary plan to deal with the shortages, including allowing probationary employees to work overtime under certain conditions and firefighters to work 72-hour shifts.
Generally, firefighters must have 24 hours of rest before and after they work a 48-hour shift where they are responding to emergencies, according to SFD.
A Seattle Times analysis of overtime data found that 10 firefighters worked 48-hour shifts without 24 hours off on 36 occasions last year. In reviewing those instances, the department determined that most of those shifts were allowable because firefighters were working "non-operations overtime," such as sporting events or administering vaccines. SFD said Kieta's shifts likely violated the rule on four occasions, which it hadn't been aware of previously.
SFD has faced similar staffing numbers in the last decade. In 2014, the department reported slightly fewer uniformed staff than in 2021, though it also responded to fewer calls. The department reached its busiest period in 2016, when it responded to more than 97,000 emergencies — which worked out to a rate of responses per firefighter slightly higher than last year.
A department spokesperson pointed to a range of changes in recent years, such as city policies increasing employee leave and staffing for more special events like Kraken hockey games. SFD also launched the Health One program, which is staffed by firefighters, to respond to calls that could involve medical or mental health needs but aren't full-fledged emergencies.
For some firefighters, working at a busy station is a kind of badge of honor. Station 25 in Capitol Hill, which traces its roots to the department's charter in 1889, is home to Aid Car 25 — the ambulance that responds to more calls than any other unit in the city.
A25, as it is known, responded to 5,272 calls last year, up 12% from 2020, an average of more than 14 emergencies a day. The ambulance is parked underneath a disco ball, a whimsical nod to the neighborhood's vibrant nightlife and the station's around-the-clock work.
Firefighters there are often rushing out before the fire bell sounds, attuned to listen for a faint click that happens a split-second before the emergency lights switch on.
"We've always been one of the busiest houses in the city, and we'll always be busy," said Tobin Graves, a lieutenant who has worked at the station since 1999. "Years ago..." he said, beginning a sentence he never finished as he rushed out the door to a call.
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