Remember that Kansas City firefighter who, thanks to overtime pay, pulled down an eye-popping $232,000 in 2016? Remember those Kansas City, Kan., firefighters who cadged $920,000 for shifts they didn’t work?
A Shawnee neighbor of mine knows a cure for that. Pat Coughlin served as fire chief of both Olathe and Richfield, Minn. After retiring, he was executive director of the Residential Fire Safety Institute and a regional manager for the International Code Council. Pat advocates what he calls military-style staffing.
“The Army and Marines staff their infantry squads with two types of personnel,” he said. “They assign career personnel to leadership and specialist slots. They fill other slots with enlistees. The biggest incentive for many soldiers is a free college education.”
Pat would have fire departments hire college students to work a four-year period in return for a subsidized college education. They would fully complete fire training, then fill basic slots on engine, ladder and emergency medical crews (but not as skilled paramedics). Career firefighters would cover leadership and technical slots. Such student programs save about half the cost of salaries and pensions otherwise required for career firefighters.
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Are college students too young for that work? The U.S. Army gladly enlists 18-year-olds.
More than 350 fire departments nationwide have adopted student staffing, including Manhattan in Kansas and Warrensburg in Missouri. The long-existing college program in Auburn, Ala., fills 60 percent of fire crews there. Depending on need, some departments allow student recruits to live in firehouses, which are already equipped with beds, bathrooms and even kitchens. They often get small salaries and free college tuition.
Where firefighters work under union contracts, the students also are unionized.
I learned with amazement that the Kansas City department allows some firefighters to work 30 to 40 hours of overtime per week. Those hours at time-and-a-half jack up costs. That is insane. Why does the moron hit himself on the head with a hammer? Because it feels so good when he stops. So, stop. Stop paying that overtime by hiring college students to work the extra hours at savings of 50 percent or more.
At most departments, firefighters cover one 24-hour shift and are free the next 48 — nine workdays a month. Pat said that during work shifts they often are on standby about 80 percent of the time, enabling them to sleep at the station — or in the case of student firefighters, to study for classes. After graduation some students stay on with their departments. Most go on to other careers, thus saving our cities huge sums in future pensions.
That’s no small matter. Kansas City taxpayers pay $18.7 million a year into the Kansas City firefighters’ pension plan — much more than just a few years ago.
Pat said college student staffing makes firefighting safer. It is strenuous work, which younger people often handle more easily. Because it is cheaper, it permits the hiring of full crews on the trucks — four firefighters instead of the three in some departments.
I know how useful student staffing can be. Starting college in 1952, I worked part time, first writing for the weekly West Tulsa News, then for KTUL Radio, and finally shooting 16-millimeter news film at KVOO-TV for a dollar an hour — equal to $9.30 hourly today. Graduating in 1956, I was ready for the world of journalism, just as students are for firefighting or any other profession they later choose.
So student firefighters could solve the overtime problem. But what about those firefighters who took money for shifts they didn’t work? Why not start by requiring the new student hires to enroll for a philosophy course on ethics? Even better would be a law school course on fraud.
Charles Hammer of Shawnee writes a monthly column for The Star’s 913 newsmagazine.