Fla. city gives FD permission to add 6 FF positions to reduce mandatory overtime

The local union president said that the staffing level has not risen along with Lakeland's population


Gary White
The Ledger

LAKELAND, Fla. — Lakeland has given the city's fire department permission to hire six employees as part of its attempt to reduce the need for mandatory overtime work.

In a letter to all personnel dated Tuesday, Lakeland Fire Chief Douglas Riley said the department is taking applications for six new firefighter positions, or two per shift. Riley wrote that the move will "increase staffing to minimize the effects of mandatory overtime for all personnel."

The action will
The action will "increase staffing to minimize the effects of mandatory overtime for all personnel," Lakeland Fire Chief Douglas Riley said. (Image/Lakeland Fire Department)

The hires probably won't come on board until early next year because of the need for recruitment, vetting and orientation, Riley wrote. All six positions will receive the step-one firefighter salary of $44,740 plus benefits, Riley said.

Shannon Turbeville, president of the Lakeland Professional Firefighters union, said the additions will help address what he considers a chronic problem of forced overtime work in the department. The union sent a letter of appreciation to Riley after his announcement.

Turbeville, who has worked for LFD for 22 years, said mandatory overtime has only become a problem in the last two years. He said the staffing level has not risen to match the increase in service calls as Lakeland's population has grown.

The Lakeland Fire Department has a budget for 156 sworn line personnel for the current fiscal year. The department has six vacancies, spokeswoman Stephanie Lewis said in response to a query from The Ledger.

The department had 141 sworn line personnel in 2013, according to the earliest annual report available from the city.

Turbeville sent a letter to Lakeland City Manager Shawn Sherrouse last month expressing concerns about staffing problems in the fire department. In recent months, it has been common for 20% of the department's daily workforce to be working overtime, Turbeville said, including some required to work a second consecutive 24-hour shift.

A firefighter's typical schedule is 24 hours on and 48 hours off.

"I'm sure you realize that this situation is less than optimal for the safety of the public and their firefighters, and I want to believe that your office is working on a long-term and sustainable solution," Turbeville wrote to Sherrouse.

Turbeville said the department had to shut down a rescue unit over the weekend of Oct. 30 at the northwest station, the city's busiest.

Riley responded in detail to Turbeville's letter on Sherrouse's behalf. He said that a firefighter went home sick at noon on Oct. 31, and the lieutenants in charge of scheduling received no responses to requests for voluntary overtime work.

Another employee went home sick at 4 p.m., Riley wrote, and the crew leaders decided to close one engine and move a third firefighter to another truck. The department ran two members below the minimum staffing for the rest of the shift, Riley wrote.

"Mandatory overtime continues to be a challenge and a concern for myself and my senior leadership team," Riley wrote. "We are currently researching and evaluating potential solutions to address the ongoing concerns of mandatory overtime including evaluating our current hiring practices, encouraging more personnel to participating in voluntary overtime and weighing the cost of overtime versus hiring additional personnel."

The city and the union agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding to temporarily suspend the 40% overtime cap for the rest of 2021, Riley wrote. That is a city directive from 2016 saying that employees' overtime pay may not exceed 40% of their base salary.

Suspending the cap allows more flexibility in allowing employees to work voluntary overtime so that others won't be forced to work overtime.

In his letter, Turbeville said a software system management created to track overtime work hasn't been working as designed. He wrote that the system is erroneously labeling some employees as having reached the 40% overtime cap, resulting in fewer employees available to work voluntary overtime.

In his response, Riley wrote that firefighters' "very dynamic and complicated" work schedules make it difficult to maintain an accurate record of each employee's overtime percentage. He said that "built-in" overtime — that paid for holiday work and regularly scheduled hours that meet Fair Labor Standards Act rules for overtime pay — accounts for about 9% of firefighters' total overtime pay.

Turbeville went public over the summer with complaints that the department was requiring employees to provide services at private events, including services at the Lakes Church and baseball games at Joker Marchant Stadium. In response to a union grievance, Riley approved a Memorandum of Agreement in September that the department would cease mandatory overtime assignments at Tigertown.

The department also told union members that they would no longer be expected to provide backup medical assistance for Sunday services at the Lakes Church.

Turbeville said COVID-19 has exacerbated staffing problems that already existed in the department. In his letter to all personnel, Riley acknowledged the challenge.

"The last 18 months have been difficult for all of us as we navigate uncharted territory," Riley wrote. "I recognize the strain that the steady increase in mandatory overtime has had on each of you and your concerns have not fallen on deaf ears. My senior leadership team and I have been working closely with City Management to evaluate and identify the root cause and to formulate strategies to minimize the effects and occurrences of mandatory overtime."

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(c)2021 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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