Romano: Keep better tabs on firefighter shift swaps

So a firefighter needs a particular day off and swaps shifts with a colleague.

Can we agree there's nothing wrong with that?

So another firefighter wants some time off and pays a colleague to work in his place.

Can we agree that might have some complications?

So a handful of firefighters are swapping hundreds of hours a year with little or no oversight from the chief when it comes to how, or if, the shifts are being repaid.

Can we agree that's just nuts?

An investigation by Times reporters Mark Puente, Kameel Stanley and Anna M. Phillips recently outlined how a small group of St. Petersburg firefighters have used a remarkably lax policy to swap or get out of, roughly, every fourth or fifth shift they were scheduled to work in the past two years.

Worse yet, Chief Jim Large doesn't seem to consider it much of a problem at all.

He insists that all shifts are properly staffed, and none of his people has come to him with complaints about abuses or disagreements about repayment of swaps.

That's great. It's also shortsighted and cavalier.

Why should the chief care about this?

1. The most obvious concern would be income tax questions. If there is no record of how one firefighter repaid another, isn't it reasonable to ask if money switched hands under the table. (Just to be clear, no one has been accused of underreporting income.) The chief might not consider someone else's tax form to be his problem, but a city department should not have policies that allow even the hint of impropriety.

2. Paying a colleague to work a few of your shifts might not be a big problem. Paying colleagues to work dozens of shifts raises a different set of questions. For instance, should that firefighter be stacking pension and vacation time for hours not worked? What about health care benefits?

3. Considering they work 24-hour shifts, it might be fair to ask about the alertness of a firefighter who takes on too many additional shifts.

None of this means that the department is out of control, or that this is a scandal of epic proportions. It appears that firefighters are following the rules, even if the rules have been stretched to a point where they are nearly unrecognizable.

And no one is saying that firefighters should not be allowed some flexibility in their schedules. This is a high-risk and potentially high-stress occupation. The 24-hour shifts can make life challenging, and the department will always have someone in need of time off for family or medical issues.

The problem is having a policy that makes it look as if firefighters are free to come and go as they please, with their own colleagues essentially working for them as subcontractors.

There's a reason that other cities in Florida, notably Tampa and Miami, do not allow cash swaps and take greater control in the number of schedule changes per year.

Here's what's important to remember:

Nearly every one of the city's 300-plus firefighters made use of a schedule swap at some time in the past two years. I say good for them. It's a nice perk and a smart way to provide flexibility.

But the city cannot allow it to continue so recklessly. If fire officials don't get in front of this issue, they're going to get bitten in the rear.

Romano: Keep better tabs on firefighter shift swaps 12/16/13 [Last modified: Monday, December 16, 2013 9:18pm]

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