Firefighters in the East Contra Costa County Fire Protection District work an average of five 48-hour shifts per month, which works out to an average work week of 56 hours.
There are a total of 48 fire-suppression positions in the ECCFPD, 43 of which are currently staffed. The remaining five positions are back-filled by overtime, which Fire Chief Hugh Henderson said is less expensive than hiring additional employees with full benefit loads and other employee expenses. It also allows firefighters to work extra hours to supplement their base pay, one of the lowest rates in the Bay Area.
There are three classifications of firefighters in the ECCFPD: 12 entry-level firefighters; 15 fire engineers, who drive the engines and manage equipment; and 16 fire captains, who command the engine crews and manage individual station operations.
The command staff of the ECCFPD consists of three battalion chiefs, one per shift, who oversee district operations and provide overall incident command on calls, coordinating multiple engine companies and other agencies.
In overall command of the district is Henderson. In addition to running the district administration, the chief’s duties can include command of major incidents, managing media or even operating the district fire boat, as occurred last week.
Rounding out the district’s full-time staff is one administrative assistant, who manages the district office, including payroll and placing equipment and supply orders.
The district also employs about 20 reserve firefighters, who are paid $13 per hour and average 20 to 25 hours per month, mostly in training.
Firefighter pay and benefit packages vary widely across California and the nation due to varying population densities, terrain, local demographics, tax laws and collective bargaining agreements, to name some of the variables. The largest district in the county is the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (ConFire) – which borders the ECCFPD to the west in Antioch – and serves 600,000 people in nine cities and unincorporated areas covering 304 square miles.
The accompanying chart are the basic rate, average overtime and total wages for the full-time fire positions in the ECCFPD, alongside the base rate (not including overtime) for the same positions in ConFire:
Retirement benefits in the ECCFPD are managed by the Contra Costa County Employees’ Retirement Association (CCCERA). The fixed-benefit pension system is a three-percent-at-age-50 (3@50) formula, which provides 3 percent of an employee’s average monthly salary over the previous 12 months worked for every year of employment. Overtime is not used when calculating the previous year’s salary for retirement purposes.
Therefore, an ECCFPD fire captain earning $5,000 per month and hired at the age 28 (the average age at which public safety employees earning 3@50 are hired, according to a study by CalPERS, the state’s largest public employee retirement organization) and retiring at 50 would receive a pension of $3,300 per month, or $39,600 per year. The benefit also provides a maximum 3-percent annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA).
By working until age 58, the same captain could retire after 30 years of employment, earning as much as 90 percent of his final year’s salary. According to CalPERS, about 34 percent of all public safety employees, including police and prison guards, reach 30 years of service. One percent reach 30 years of service by age 50.
“The 3@50 (formula) is an industry standard now,” said Contra Costa County Supervisor District III Mary Piepho. “(ECCFPD firefighters) are underpaid as far as the Bay Area goes, but the 3@50 provides some level of competitiveness for the district to attract skilled and qualified personnel to serve the public.”
Depending on their age when starting, employees in the ECCFPD contribute between 13.7 percent (starting at age 21) and 20.20 percent (starting at age 49 or older) of their pension costs, the district paying the remaining 80 to 87 percent. As public employees, district employees do not pay Social Security taxes on wages, nor are they eligible for Social Security upon retirement.
District employees are eligible for retirement benefits after 10 years of service when retiring at 50, or at any age after 20 years of service.
Retirement benefits accrued but not yet paid for are known as unfunded liabilities. Due to retirement policies put in place during more affluent times plus losses in retirement fund investments caused by the recession, and because pension amounts are fixed, unfunded liabilities pose a major funding problem for nearly every public agency. As more employees retire, larger and larger percentages of the district budget will be consumed to pay off retirements. Approximately one-fourth of the ECCFPD’s budget now goes to pay unfunded liabilities, a total that could reach as much as 50 percent in coming years.
Pension reform for new hires could include reducing the percentage of salary used to calculate retirement, using three years instead of one to figure the salary used in the calculations. Raising the retirement age and/or reducing COLA increases could also be part of a revised pension formula, all of which will require years before it impacts the district’s bottom line, according to the county’s website.
The ECCFPD’s current contract with International Association of Firefighters Local 1230 was extended last month for a year. Negotiations are expected to re-open following the June vote. Local 1230 also represents ConFire employees, who last year took a 5-percent pay cut and dropped a future 5-percent raise. President Vice Wells, in announcing the ECCFPD extension, said pensions are a significant concern everywhere, and will be under discussion when talks resume.
Measure S does not include additional pay for firefighters other than a maximum 2-percent COLA.
Click here to read Part I in The Press' series about fire protection in East County, focusing on the history.
Click here to read Part II, which details a firefighter's job duties when not putting out flames.
Click here to read Part III, where fire district leaders imagine what happens if Measure S fails.