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Editorial: St. Petersburg needs a new fire chief

St. Petersburg Fire Chief Jim Large has decided to do his job and manage his department, signaling this past week that he would reform an absurd policy that allowed firefighters to pay co-workers an undetermined amount of cash for working for them. But the action — at least three years after even he acknowledged to city lawyers that the scheme was problematic and nine months after the Tampa Bay Times began asking about the policy — comes too late. Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman should look for a new fire chief.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported last Sunday, for decades St. Petersburg firefighters had the amazing flexibility to swap shifts with co-workers with no oversight by supervisors either for the hours swapped or the compensation agreed to. Firefighters could trade or sell unlimited shifts to colleagues, negotiating cash payments, bartering goods or services, or simply promising to work for them later. After the Times started asking questions, Large in July finally capped the number of hours a firefighter can swap in a year to 480 and omitted cash payments from an option on swap forms. Yet Large rejected the notion more oversight was needed.

It's common for fire departments to allow employees to swap shifts, given the occupation's unusual work schedule of 24 hours on and 48 hours off. But the lack of regulation in St. Petersburg appears to have been unique in Florida, with it left solely up to individuals to work out terms. While union contracts make it clear no firefighter can work more than two, 24-hour shifts in a row, even that kind of scheduling raises questions about safety. And it offers potential for abuse, both inside the workforce and on the public books. New hires might be pressured to cover for older employees. And taxpayers could be footing the bill for an experienced paramedic or firefighter but only getting the services of a novice.

Reporters Mark Puente, Kameel Stanley and Anna M. Phillips found a system so poorly managed that some firefighters retired still owing colleagues hundreds of hours of work. One firefighter admitted he sometimes paid his colleagues the equivalent of $10 an hour for a swap — far below the rate he pocketed from taxpayers in salary and pension benefits.

Finally, after the Times article was published, Large changed his tune. On Wednesday he announced he had delivered a preliminary draft of a new policy to the city's legal team for review. The plan would explicitly ban shift trades for cash and for swaps made to allow a firefighter to work a second job. It also reduced the hours a firefighter can use or owe from 480 to 240 annually, which is more in line with other Florida departments.

That's good. But Large should have done it years ago — including in 2010 when he raised the issue with legal staff but apparently never followed through. Instead, in the nine months it took the Times to ascertain the breadth of the scheme, Large defended the system and seemed incredulous that the chief should actually have a role in managing employee attendance. Only after public exposure, and with a new mayor on the way who will decide if he stays on the job, did Large repent. That should be all the information Kriseman needs.

Editorial: St. Petersburg needs a new fire chief 12/20/13 [Last modified: Friday, December 20, 2013 4:57pm]
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