Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Public safety

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue lieutenant controls the overtime system — and works most of it

ST. PETERSBURG — As deputy fire marshal, Lt. Terry Barber supervises the men and women who perform safety and building inspections around the city.

He also is the department's special events coordinator, meaning he is responsible for doling out off-duty overtime assignments that can be a perk for firefighters looking to earn extra cash.

He has coordinated thousands of overtime hours in the past several years — and has filled the most himself.

Since July 2010, Barber has worked 2,616 overtime hours, giving him the equivalent of an extra 65 workweeks and $122,952 in pay.

He pulled in more than twice as much overtime as the next highest person on the list, firefighter Brian Anderson, who worked 1,186 hours in that same time frame.

"You hear complaints and mumbles and grumbles about numbers like that," said fire union president Michael Blank.

Even so, he and fire administrators don't have a problem with the system, however lopsided, because they say Barber is doing work others don't want.

"To me it's what I call entitlement," Blank said. "If you don't put in for overtime, you don't want it. … Somebody has to work it."

• • •

It is not uncommon for residents to see off-duty police officers at large festivals or venues.

What's less known is that many times those events often require a fire department presence, too.

If an event has more than 600 people, for instance, a fire inspector is required. Last month's Fire­stone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg called for nearly 65 firefighters.

Some are there in case of medical emergencies. Others are inspectors who make sure safety procedures are followed.

Firefighters are paid an hourly fee of $33 to $47 for off-duty special events.

Firefighters often volunteer for these assignments, which can last a few hours inspecting a festival to several hours at Tropicana Field for a baseball game.

But if not enough people volunteer, supervisors turn to a mandatory rotation list.

"Whoever is at the top of the list gets assigned the event," said Rescue Chief Ian Womack. "Then their name drops to the bottom."

The mandatory list ensures events are covered. But officials loathe using it. Mandatory assignments counted for just 4 percent of the more than 24,000 special event overtime hours logged during the period the newspaper examined.

"A mandatory assignment is a tremendous interruption to your personal life," Womack said.

That's where Barber comes in.

"In an effort to reduce mandatory overtime assignments, I have volunteered to take some of the assignments," Barber, 56, told the Times in response to written questions. "This takes place when we do not have enough volunteer personnel available to fill the assignments."

Because of that, it makes sense Barber is the No. 1 recipient of special event overtime, Womack said.

Some firefighters make overtime a part-time venture and put their hand up for everything. Others are more selective or altogether reluctant. Different schedules also are at play. Inspectors like Barber usually work eight-hour days. Firefighters who want to pick up overtime have to fit it around their 24-hour shifts.

"The more you make yourself available, the more likely you're going to get it because you're always in the mix," Womack said. "Then there's the person that doesn't really like working overtime but they see a specific event so they might put in. Then there's the person that just doesn't like overtime at all . . . and the only time they get it is when they get mandatoried."

Special event overtime hours do not count toward a fire employee's pension. But they are a paycheck boost.

Barber, who has been the overtime coordinator since 1997, has an annual salary of $72,936. The 2,616 hours he worked from July 2010 through Jan. 2 represent 11 percent of all available overtime during that period.

Barber, who would respond only to written questions, said there are no specific events that routinely do not attract enough volunteers. He did say that some summer and holiday events can be difficult to fill.

"If someone has a problem with this, they're crazy," said Blank, the union president. "It is strictly based on the number of volunteers during any given pay period."

• • •

Officials also said they take other steps to create fairness within the overtime system.

A computer system is used to make the overtime assignments, taking into account the times employees say they are available and who received the last assignment.

Yet, records show that the system still seems to favor Barber.

The fire department doesn't automatically tally overtime worked by individual firefighters. The Times requested all the department's special event overtime reports, which are stored electronically, then analyzed the data to determine who was working the most shifts.

After being presented with the Times' findings, fire administrators also offered other possible explanations for why the system seemed to favor Barber.

Sometimes, they said, venues and event organizers wait until the last minute to notify the department they need workers.

Barber, being the coordinator, may then have to fill the post himself, they said.

It's unclear how often that happens, however, because the system does not track occasions where there were no volunteers and Barber picked up a shift to spare others from being forced to work.

Administrators also say their comfort with the current system is influenced by the department's labor agreement with the fire union.

That clause, added in 2011, specifically addresses overtime and how it should be handled, including a list of efforts to increase the volunteer pool. One appears to directly apply to Barber.

It states officials will "increase the pool of volunteers for overtime by permitting a Fire Lieutenant to voluntarily accept an overtime assignment that would have otherwise resulted in a mandatory assignment for a Firefighter provided the Fire Lieutenant can be placed into a supervisory position during such overtime assignment."

Blank said Barber is doing his colleagues a service.

"It's worked for years," he said. "If there's no one available, he's not mandatorying anybody. On the other hand, if he didn't do it and everybody started getting mandatoried, people would go crazy. As long as the staffing stays where it is, there will always be overtime concerns."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected], (727) 893-8643 or @cornandpotatoes on Twitter.

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