The Money Burn
Sandra Chapman/Eyewitness News Investigator
Indianapolis - When alarms sound, city fire crews jump into action. But 13 Investigates has found IFD cutting corners on manpower while facing increased man hours.
It's costing taxpayers millions in overtime and puts firefighters at risk.
And 27 new recruits added to the streets this fall won't solve "The Money Burn".
Raging flames topped several apartment buildings at the International Village in Speedway June 30th. Speedway called Ladder 30 and it's 4-member crew from the Indianapolis Fire Department, for backup.
But on any given day, 13 Investigates has discovered IFD ladders city-wide running short of manpower.
Firefighters with ladder companies are often reassigned to help fill other staffing holes the city can't afford to fill with permanent hires.
"We have to fill those spots up. That fire truck can't go out with 2 people or 1 person on it. We know that it takes 4-people minimum to be able to accomplish a task at a fire ground," explained Michael Reeves, President of Local 416 of the Professional Firefighters Union.
But staffing records obtained by 13 Investigates, show IFD struggling to keep up with the 4-person industry standard.
The day before that massive Speedway apartment fire, six ladder companies were missing personnel, including Station 30 the ladder called to assist.
"The policy of the department right now is to run our ladder trucks short. And not our engine companies," confirmed IFD Battalion Chief, Al Stovall, who serves as Administration Chief.
According to Stovall, engines carry water, provide broader use and are cheaper to operate.
That's an important distinction for a department short staffed and feeling the money burn.
"I'm not wanting to throw stones at anybody, I've never agreed with not budgeting for what you can foresee," said Local 416 President Reeves. "The overtime crisis that we have is strictly due to budgeting issues," he told 13 Investigates.
City budgeting that is, or the lack thereof.
Brian Sanford, formerly of Warren Township, is IFD's new chief and says he's already working with the city on possible fixes.
He says the current IFD levels are obviously lacking compared to his overtime budget at Warren Township.
"Now we were a much smaller department, but our overtime budget was $100-thousand dollars for the entire department," said Sanford.
$100-thousand dollars for a small township. Yet for 2008, former city administrators only budgeted $150-thousand in overtime at IFD. A department 40 short of the 980-firefighters needed on the street.
"We've just created a monster. We've known that's been there," said Reeves of the under-funded budget.
Public Safety Director, Scott Newman agrees. In April he severely criticized the previous administration.
"This budget was designed for failure. It was doomed to fail from the beginning. This budget was a phony and it lacked public accountability."
It's now projected IFD's overtime budget will top $3-point-4-million, much of it fueled by firefighters working emergency fill-in shifts.
But 13 Investigates has found something else sparking overtime: a "well guarded" perk to reduce the work week called "Kelly Days".
Instead of firefighters working 56-hours a week, they now work 48.
"Kelly Days is a safety issue. When you work 56 hours a week you never get that break. We're no longer just killing ourselves time and time again. Every 3-weeks you get an extra day off."
But at IFD where the ranks are 40-short, records show "Kelly Days" pushing overtime.
Consider this: IFD can only leave up to 6-firefighter positions unfilled each day before overtime kicks in.
On a single shift at IFD Battalion 1 "C" Shift records showed the connection.
May 9, 2008, six firefighters on Kelly Days create six overtime slots.
May 18th, 2008 Kelly Days were on the schedule for eleven firefighters. Two other firefighters were called back on O.T.
And again on June 29, 2008. Thirteen Kelly Days assigned and two firefighters called in for overtime.
"This firefighter is off on Kelly Day and they had to put an O.T. person in that spot," confirmed Chief Stovall reviewing the records 13 Investigates brought to his attention.
So while one firefighter gets a "Kelly Day" in the name of safety, another is possibly put at risk by working a second 24-hour shift.
"You can't work more than 48-hours in a row. We force you to take time off. That's not a national standard, that's common sense standard. We don't want to hurt our people," Reeves said emphatically.
IFD does not allow "line firefighters" to work overtime on Kelly Days.
But Battalion Chiefs can with straight pay, but only six times a year.
With a total of 17-Kelly Days a year for each firefighter, 13 Investigates asked Fire officials if the city is saving money.
According to Chief Stovall, they don't know. "I do not have a number for that," said Stovall.
"It may be a wash," added Union President Reeves.
Stovall says the last analysis for Kelly Days and overtime was more than 10-years ago. The department adopted the Kelly Day system in 1992.
IFD now pays for a total of 15,317 Kelly Days a year.
For one 24-hour shift, an average 3-year firefighter earns just over $500. Using that number as a department-wide average, 13 Investigates calculates $7.6 million in Kelly Days based on 901 firefighters eligible for the benefit.
But it's unclear how much of the department's overtime budget is used to cover gaps caused by 27 new hires on the street this fall will help alleviate some of the staffing issues. But the department will still see manpower shortages of 15 or more depending on the number of retirements.
But one thing's clear, the union says don't expect budget solutions at the expense of Kelly Days. It's a high price for safety.