The Seattle Fire Department is understaffed. Why?

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A Seattle Medic One car near Pike Place Market

While the Seattle Fire Department may have escaped the pressures that federally mandated reform has brought to city police, newly confirmed Fire Chief Harold Scoggins will be faced with a number of pressing questions. The biggest one: What should he do about the department’s 83 vacancies as Seattle grows and its economy improves?

With a fraction of the attention -- and, arguably, expectations -- heaped on the appointment of Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, the Seattle City Council confirmed Scoggins Monday.

Scoggins has enjoyed a long career as a firefighter, most recently as the chief of the Glendale Fire Department outside of Los Angeles. At just under 200,000, Glendale is less than a third the population of Seattle. In the region’s dry and hilly climate, Glendale faces the constant threat of brush and mountain fires. But what Seattle lacks in brush fires, it makes up for in growth. “More people are going to mean more responses,” Scoggins told Crosscut. “The rising call load is pretty significant.”

In 2010, the Seattle Fire Department received about 77,000 calls. In 2014, that number was up nearly 15 percent to 89,000. That increase is due in part to Seattle’s rising population, but also, says Scoggins, to Seattle’s aging and more accident-prone demographic.

But during that same five-year span, the fire department’s workforce got slammed with a perfect storm of retirements and budget cuts, and now Scoggins will have to work to match his department’s capacity to the city’s need.

According to Seattle Fire Department public information officer Kyle Moore, the SFD has experienced cycles of hiring and retiring that date back to the end of World War II. Thousands of young men were returning from high-stress, high-danger situations overseas and all of them needed work. Firefighting was a logical position.

As firefighters age together, they subsequently retire together. During one of these large turnover periods, the financial crisis of 2008 hit and city budgets plummeted. No department was immune, and firefighter hiring fell off.

The fire department works in a four-shift rotation, which means, with about 80 total vacancies, each shift is currently 20 firefighters short of full strength, a significant deficit across the city's nearly three dozen stations. “If you’re a planner in the city,” says Scoggins, “and you take a vacation, your desk sits empty until you return. When there’s a vacancy in the fire department, there’s an expectation that we continue to do the job correctly.”

To compensate for those missing personnel, firefighters worked a total of 392,178 overtime hours in 2014. Divided between the approximately 1,000 firefighters in SFD, each person worked about 390 extra hours last year, or, in the context of a 40-hour workweek, almost 10 extra work-weeks.

As a result the SFD exceeded its $13,013,972 overtime budget by $5.4 million.

Last fall, there was a lot of financial concern about the costs of Seattle Police Department overtime spending. Are we seeing going to see a similar concern about possible overspending on the part of SFD?

“The overtime budget gets a misnomer,” says Kenny Stuart, president of the Seattle Fire Fighters Union. “A lot of media stories will portray the amount of overtime as excessive spending. The reality is that it is cheaper for the department to pay for overtime than it is to hire new firefighters.”

Stuart says it takes two years to recruit and train a firefighter. After joining the department, the new recruit gets benefits and a retirement plan. All that investment ends up costing more than the one and a half overtime pay for existing firefighters.

Just the opposite of the police, SFD's overtime spending may reflect an overly frugal use of city money. “The city has figured out that they save money if they just pay overtime,” says Stuart.

The consequence, though, is that understaffing in the department is chronic. “Historically,” says Scoggins, “the department has had about 50 vacancies.” Moore and Stuart agree: The Seattle Fire Department is rarely, if ever, fully staffed.

If overtime is not a budgetary concern, it is a safety concern. “Firefighters are working more than they want,” says Stuart.

“It’s a delicate balance between budget and safety,” says Scoggins. “We have built in parameters that limit how much people can work.” For example, firefighters can only work one 48-hour shift a month. “Forty-eight hours may not sound like a lot,” says Scoggins, “but when you’re working downtown, doing emergency response, that’s a lot.”

Staffing is not the only adjustment SFD will need to make. Despite Seattle’s growth, calls about fires are falling: only 17 percent in 2014. Medical emergencies, on the other hand, accounted for 80 percent of all calls. As the department expands, Scoggins hopes to shape its growth around the needs. "We’re going to use data and analyze whether we have the right resources,” he says.

The fire department is also only 8 percent women, losing African-American employees and lacking a solid leadership development program, all issues Scoggins will be asked to address.

But as Seattle continues to grow (the fastest of a major city, according to the 2013 Census; the fifth fastest, according to Forbes) the calls will increase and the vacancy problem will become more pronounced. “Seattle is not overly unique in its vacancies,” says Scoggins. “But if we don’t act, we could very quickly become unique.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.