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May 6, 2015

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Is a wave of county firefighter retirements on the horizon?

Changes in overtime pay to affect salaries, prompting the exits


Heather Cory

Rookie Clark County firefighters pull hoses as part of their training in this 2008 file photo. With Fire Department overtime being trimmed, a wave of retirements is expected, but county officials they say they have plenty of would-be rookies waiting to fill their spots.

Compensation package

Clark County firefighter compensation averages $180,000, once overtime, and benefits such as “remote pay” for those working in Laughlin and the county’s retirement contributions are taken into account. With growing support from the Clark County Commission, the Fire Department is making sweeping changes expected to slice last year’s $15 million overtime budget by $5.5 million.
Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

With Clark County firefighters on notice that they won’t be getting as much overtime pay as they’ve enjoyed in the past, a flood of retirements is expected.

“They’ve reached their maximum salary limits, so retirement is looking more attractive to them than continuing to work without all that extra overtime pay,” Commissioner Steve Sisolak says.

Plenty of would-be rookies are waiting to fill out the ranks, though. The County Fire Department started accepting applications Tuesday for recruits — and reached its limit of 1,000 that day.

The department now has only 23 openings. Sisolak says its leaders are certain that at least 100 employees will leave in the next year, but they expect the final number will be far more than 100 because of changes to overtime pay.

Although the job can be hazardous, it can also be lucrative — even in retirement. County Fire Department retirees are paid up to 75 percent of the average of their three highest years of earnings.

County firefighter compensation averages $180,000, once overtime, benefits such as “remote pay” for those working in Laughlin and the county’s retirement contributions are taken into account. In the past year, Sisolak has forced the county to consider ways to lower that total. Bolstered by growing support from most of the County Commission, the Fire Department is making sweeping changes expected to slice last year’s $15 million overtime budget by $5.5 million.

The department is shuttering heavy rescue and hazardous materials units and letting Las Vegas Fire & Rescue take on those duties through a mutual-aid agreement. The county department also is pulling some fire personnel out of office jobs. The freed-up firefighters are being put into a rotation of substitutes, ready to fill in at straight time for absent firefighters. By doing so, the department no longer has to pay substitutes at the overtime rate.

Another expected change would cut even more into those lucrative overtime payments.

Discussions with Arizona’s Bullhead City Fire Department are focusing on an understanding that would let Clark County pull one firetruck out of service in Laughlin, across the Colorado River. That would free up another 12 firefighters to become part of the substitute rotation. Bullhead City and the county have a mutual-aid agreement. Sisolak, who represents Laughlin, says discussions are to ensure both governments are on board with pulling the truck.

Even if the agreement doesn’t work, state Senate candidate Joe Hardy has said if elected he would reintroduce a bill next year to incorporate Laughlin. That would leave fire staffing responsibilities to the newly incorporated town and move all 45 county fire personnel out of Laughlin and, presumably, into the substitution rotation.

That’s a real change in firefighter paychecks. How that plays into retirement decisions is tied to how retirement works. Firefighters can retire after 20 years with annual payments equal to 50 percent of the average of their three highest years of earnings. They can make another 2.5 percent after 20 years. Retirement pay for firefighters hired after July 1, 1985, is capped at 75 percent; retirement pay for firefighters hired before that date is not capped.

Sisolak says theoretically that means a county firefighter could make as much in retirement as in annual pay. So he expects the overtime changes will lead to an unusually high number of retirements in the next couple of year, which is part of the reason for the current recruitment effort.

Fire Chief Steve Smith says recruiting now “ensures that we have an applicant pool ready to fill those positions quickly to help us contain overtime costs.”

Ryan Beaman, president of the county firefighters union, could not be reached for comment.

Beyond cutting the overtime budget, the county would likely see Fire Department expenses decline because recruits come in at the low end of the pay scale.

Further, Sisolak says, if county negotiators could manage to cut back on benefits and other compensation during contract talks, the county stands to make substantial changes to the Fire Department’s overall budget.

“It’s good news for the county,” he adds.

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  1. So what is the split between the retirement contributions of the employee and Clark County? Is it matched 50/50? No one in the civilian job market gets even close to this compensation and they are subject to continual layoffs.

    For the civilian employee, the ramifications of being laid off 1 year in every 5 yeas which is very common today, are to consume all retirement savings made before another job is found. This leaves them with only social security checks - a shoddy pittance of their income reserved from a 45 year working period.

    The real estate debacles created by greed alone create enormous debt that will never be paid off except through bankruptcy. Many of the taxpayers who pay the fire fighters salaries will have to go bankrupt themselves to be able to afford retirement. This is the new American economics that will be around for a long time.

    My guess is that it costs about 10 times more to fight the fires than to rebuild the destroyed structures. It may make more sense to have containment crews to keep the fire from spreading and let the house go.

    Retiring fire employees will have more time build the businesses they have started on the outside - a win/win deal. Starting a fly-tying business for instance and writing off the trips to Alaska to research the product performance and payoffs is much more rewarding than holding a hose. Amazon has a lot of great books on businesses for retirement - and what to see in North America.