Firefight – The conflict between the City of Manhattan Beach and MBFD reaches a boiling point

Manhattan Beach firefighters respond to a fire in the city. Photos courtesy MBFA

by Mark McDermott 

Manhattan Beach Fire Department Captain Dave Shenbaum believed he’d seen just about everything a firefighter, paramedic, and lifeguard could see in the course of his 30 years in the service. He’d seen homes burnt to cinders, every manner of awful injury, dozens of drownings and near-drownings, too many deaths to count, and over the past decade, a burgeoning number of massively destructive wildfires Shenbaum and his colleagues have been asked to fight as part of regional strike teams. 

But what arrived in his email on April 14 was something Shenbaum had never seen before. It was a press release issued by the City Council, and though its language was bureaucratic, its message was incendiary. It called MBFD the highest paid fire department in the state and declared that the City had made its final offer in contract negotiations, which by this point were already beyond strained. MBFD firefighters had already been working without a contract for two years. 

The Council’s message zeroed in on overtime. 

“The City’s proposal is responsive to the need to reduce overtime, both to improve the quality of life for the firefighters and to responsibly curtail unnecessary, excess spending,” the press release said. “MBFA employees’ wages are the highest among City employees and their average pay and overtime (per employee) are continually the highest in the state. While some overtime is beyond the City’s control, such as automatic aid for emergencies and natural disasters, the volume of overtime earned by MBFA employees is a direct reflection of terms within their agreement, including the City’s inability to hire additional staff when an employee is out on injury or to manage vacation time-off requests.” 

The press release made explicit what the firefighters had known for some time. The City Council was done negotiating. They were dictating terms.  Now, in place of negotiation, a public campaign had been launched, making the case that firefighters were being paid excessively. 

Firefighter compensation is an easy target. A link included in the City’s statement led to the state comptroller’s website, and a listing of City of Manhattan Beach employees’ salaries. Nine of the top 10 salaries, and 20 of the top 25, were firefighters. The highest-paid employee for the City of Manhattan Beach was a battalion chief earning $368,005 per year. Five firefighters earned over $300,000 while another four earned over $290,000. 

No city employees are as well-loved as firefighters, in Manhattan Beach as well as in most towns. They enter into residents’ lives in times of outright trauma and are tasked with saving lives, often putting their own lives at risk. They are highly trained and physically fit. Unlike police, their public safety counterparts, who are also highly skilled community protectors, nobody fears a firefighter. As evidenced by what occurs every time a fire engine crew makes an appearance at a local school or community event, firefighters are regarded uncomplicatedly as heroes. 

But Manhattan Beach has had a particularly intense love affair with its fire department. MBFD is unique in that every one of its 26 firefighters is also a trained paramedic. No other fire department in the region, and very few in the nation, can boast this level of training. When discussions occasionally arise about contracting Los Angeles County’s fire department as a cost-saving mechanism, as occurred a few years ago at City Council, public sentiment vehemently opposes it. Residents know they have an unusual fire department and most want to keep it that way. As former Chief Dennis Groat, who was instrumental in creating the all-paramedic fire department a quarter century ago, likes to say, the Manhattan Beach Fire Department is “the pride of South Bay.”  

When Shenbaum saw the press release, it struck him how far departed from this sense of pride in its fire department the City Council had apparently become. But mainly, he was perplexed. The argument made by the press release, he said, simply was not factual. 

“That’s what I couldn’t understand, not having facts behind it,” Shenbaum said. “We wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if the City said, ‘Hey, you know what, you guys? We’re in tough financial times and we just did a salary survey. We’re trying to be an open and transparent government, and we’ve come to find out you’re pretty highly paid —  as a matter of fact, out of all the surrounding cities, you’re at the top.’ We wouldn’t have a leg to stand on, and we would be open to changing things that would correct or bring us to the industry standard of our salary and compensation. But just the opposite is being shown.” 

Shenbaum said the Manhattan Beach Firefighters Association, which is the collective bargaining unit for firefighters, has repeatedly implored the City to have a neutral third party conduct a salary survey comparing MBFD to nearby comparable agencies so the two sides can have an agreed upon set of facts. The City has declined to do so. Its stance, in fact, has grown only more firm. In early May, negotiations were officially declared at an impasse, which launches a process that usually begins with a neutral mediator interceding to help bring the two sides together. The City declined mediation.

MBFA hired a consultant to do a salary survey. This survey compared MBFD salaries with fire departments in seven other cities: Beverly Hills, Culver City, Santa Monica, Newport Beach, El Segundo, Redondo Beach, and Torrance. The survey found that MBFD was squarely in the middle by most measures, and actually slightly below the average for the other seven cities. A 10-year MBFD firefighter/paramedic, for example, earned $9,707 per month, ranking fifth, with Beverly Hills first at $12,292 and Torrance last at $7,632. Likewise, an MBFD fire captain/paramedic ranked fourth, at $13,272, while Beverly Hills was highest, at $14,921. 

“We’re not even the highest paid in the seven surrounding cities, let alone the state of California,” Shenbaum said. “So why don’t we lock arms in a fair and impartial neutral salary survey? Let’s make it transparent, let the community know where we are. And just philosophically, tell us where you would like to see us —  if you want us to be in the average, the top third, the bottom third. But they’re unwilling to even talk about a salary survey, which I think would be transparent government.”

Of course, the MBFA survey is of base salaries and doesn’t include overtime. 

Jessica Vincent, the City of Manhattan Beach’s communication and civic engagement manager, said the City Council’s decision to go public with its concerns over firefighter compensation came only after two years of negotiations. She also noted that both the initial press release and all subsequent communications have consistently communicated what these goals are —  to reduce overtime and maintain an economically sustainable local fire department. 

“I think that the City Council’s goal was really to inform the community of its goals,” Vincent said. “They wanted to make sure that the city’s residents understood that they would like to keep Manhattan Beach Fire Department local. They want to increase the consistencies amongst the City departments and create autonomy, as well, for the management. I think the City Council was concerned about the excessive overtime, so they wanted to make the community aware that they don’t have a lot of control over the staffing, because they have to have it approved by MBFA.” 

Councilperson Suzanne Hadley said that the council remains both unified and clear in its intention to rein in excessive overtime costs. She argued that MBFA is the source of both the labor stalemate and excessive overtime, and said the City Council is simply trying to engage the community in understanding how the City got to a point in which firefighters are making over $300,000 a year.   

“I love our firefighters. But the fire union is a horse of a different color,” Hadley said. “Union leaders complain to residents about overtime, but they insist on keeping the system that creates that overtime. Our residents need to know the MB fire union itself controls the size of MBFD. City council in 1996 first gave the union the ability to control the size of the department by agreeing to ‘constant staffing’ and ‘prescribed staffing.’ Constant staffing is not best practice in California fire departments. In fact MBFA is one of the few unions in the state with this contract provision. It wasn’t smart in 1996 and it isn’t smart today. The fire union can immediately reduce overtime and firefighter burnout by giving up constant staffing. This council is determined to control the size of the department and grow it as necessary to reduce firefighter burnout and improve public safety. The fire union can’t eat its cake and have it too. ”

Members of the Manhattan Beach Fire Department at the main fire station. Photos courtesy MBFA

The proposals

Firefighters have likewise taken the issue to the public. In the last month, they have begun walking neighborhoods, talking to residents. Last week, firefighters conducted six community town hall meetings. Next week, they and their supporters intend to take their case directly to the City Council at Tuesday night’s meeting. 

Two months ago, that case was made to the Council in stark terms by Rudy Meija, a two-decade MBFD veteran and president of the MBFA. He appeared by himself at the May 3 council meeting and delivered an emotional plea. 

“First, I’d like to talk about the quality of firefighters you have,” he said. 

“There are 25 of us, who are all paramedics. Most of our firefighters are also trained and able to work as engineers and captains and most of our captains are trained to work as battalion chiefs. We have three LA County lifeguards that on multiple occasions have saved lives. What I’m getting at is we understand that in order to keep our fire department local, sustainable, and give the community the service it deserves, we need two important ingredients. One, we need to be as efficient as possible. We need to wear lots of hats. We know we have to do with 25 what other fire departments would do with more employees. We need quality firefighters.” 

Meija recalled his very first call as a rookie firefighter, when he realized MBFD was something very different and very special. 

“I was dispatched to Von’s where an elderly lady had passed out,” he said. “As I took her to the hospital, our engine crew took her groceries home, put them away, checked on her bedridden husband, and did her dishes. That’s the type of quality and service that you get from us.” 

Meija then noted that the Council had issued a proclamation regarding firefighters earlier that very night in honor of International Firefighters Day, which was May 4. 

“This proclamation speaks to the brave, selfless and dangerous work firefighters do, but at the same time you have turned your backs on our cry to stop the mismanagement,” Meija said. “Our communications have ended, and that’s why I’m here. Mismanagement by city leaders has led to a revolving door of fire chiefs, self-inflicted lawsuits, and broken trust between the public service and the city leaders. I have been a firefighter for nearly two decades here in Manhattan Beach, and we’ve all seen unimaginable things. We have saved lives. We’ve seen wildfires threaten family homes. We have been on the frontline of a pandemic where nobody could tell us what was going on. We still showed up every single day for this community. And what did that get us? Instability within our workplace, mismanagement leading to public safety concerns, two years of hiring delays and two years of the city turning their backs on the same brave firefighters who I’m honored to call my family this evening.”

“I’m here on behalf of our firefighter-paramedics. I’m here asking you, with all due respect, stop the mismanagement, stop the rhetoric, stop misleading the public. Question the information that you are being told. Bring the fire chief into these discussions. If any of you truly believes the words that you’re seeking to proclaim tonight…I ask you this: create a stable work environment for your Manhattan Beach firefighters. Support your Manhattan Beach firefighters. If not for us, do it for the community we serve. Make the words you proclaim mean something.”

MBFD has had six fire chiefs in the last four years. Three were interim chiefs. Two were mired in controversy when they departed. The tenure of one of those chiefs, Robert Espinosa, has had a lasting impact on relations between firefighters and city management. Firefighters, concerned about lapsed mutual aid agreements and longer response times that they believed were indicative of an unresponsive management style, became so frustrated they took the unusual step of going public with an 87 percent “no confidence” vote against Espinosa. They agitated for Espinosa’s ouster for three years prior to his retirement in 2018. But even his retirement was mired in controversy. Espinosa had agreed to step down at the end of 2017, but when the Council let former City Manager Mark Danaj go and replaced him with current City Manager Bruce Moe, Espinosa rescinded his resignation and stayed on an additional six months. 

Firefighters have not had even a standard cost of living [COLA] increase since, a time span in which all other labor groups in the City have had yearly increases. There is a widespread belief among MBFA membership that the circumstances surrounding Espinosa’s departure created bad blood between themselves and city management. 

“We’d be blind not to say this is a part of that,” Shenbaum said. “It feels like retaliation. You know those negative relationships tend to linger in the City or at least let’s just say the well may have been poisoned a bit.” 

A substantive change in MBFD’s collective bargaining structure later occurred that was indirectly tied with Espinosa’s tenure. He had hired all three battalion chiefs, bringing people from outside the area. In 2018, those three battalion chiefs formed their own collective bargaining unit. In 2020, the battalion chiefs took a modest 2 percent retroactive pay increase but agreed that the position itself going forward would pay less —  in fact, 15 percent less than the captain/paramedic position, which is where in-house promotions to battalion chief would traditionally occur. At the time, three MBFD captains had tested and were placed high on the battalion chief promotional list. The new deal meant that none of them would ever promote. 

Immediately after the new agreement, one of the battalion chiefs, already out on a long-term work-related injury, simply retired —  literally within weeks of receiving his retroactive pay raise. A second battalion chief went out on a long-term injury the next month, and would remain out for a year-and-a-half before retiring. The third battalion chief went out on long-term injury four months later and then retired last December. 

“So effectively, they all walked out the door when they signed that deal,” Shenbaum said. 

That deal was a precursor to the contract proposal the City would then make to the firefighters’ rank and file. In essence, it mirrors the “two-tier” retirement benefit reforms the state and most local agencies implemented a decade ago in that new hires have a lower salary scale than existing employees. But the City’s proposal doesn’t stop there. It reduces the 18 percent paramedic bonus to 13 percent for those who promote to engineer and 8 percent for those who promote to captain. It would civilianize fire prevention, which is currently staffed by two firefighter/paramedics who rotate in as fire inspector and fire marshall and then back out to their jobs as firefighters. It would take away paid training days and restrict vacation timing so only one firefighter per shift could be on vacation at the same time. Changes to vacation, holiday leave, and sick day policies would cumulatively reduce time off by more than a week a year. And perhaps most significantly, the proposal would impose a drastic change on how MBFD staffing works in an effort to address overtime. 

Firefighter paramedic Chris Grafton said that combined, the changes would fundamentally alter MBFD, creating a department lacking career advancement opportunities. 

“Succession planning is an issue that we’re deeply passionate about,” Grafton said. “What they’ve done to the battalion chief position has effectively guaranteed that we’ll never have a homegrown fire chief, because no one will ever promote to the battalion chief level.” 

Grafton said that overtime issue is intertwined with the vacancies that occurred with the battalion chiefs since their positions were filled internally temporarily when each was out on extended sick leave. This created a domino effect, as those filling in for the battalion chiefs were in turn covered by other firefighters in their regular positions. Additionally, the City was slow to fill two other vacancies. 

“One of the things they keep using against us is overtime and their desire to reduce or eliminate overtime,” Grafton said. “But the biggest problem we have with that is they don’t even fill their vacancies. At this point, we had a firefighter out for 21 months, and we had a fire captain out for 21 months. Both left the department. So those vacancies were filled during that time [through overtime], along with the battalion chief positions. Then they turn around and use the overtime issue against us. The reality is a lot of overtime could be drastically reduced or even eliminated if we just filled vacancies in a timely manner, which obviously is above our heads and in the HR department realm.” 

MBFA members voted 23-0 against the City’s proposal. Their own proposal was simple. They asked for no changes to the previous contract, a 3 percent salary increase retroactive to last July, and 2.5 percent increase this July and a year from now. 

 At the town hall meetings this week, Shenbaum led off with the MBFA proposal. 

“Your firefighters are basically asking for nothing,” Shenbaum said. “It’s a cost of living increase, lower than every other labor group received. They received it after negotiating for two months, and we’ve been negotiating without a contract for two years, and no COLAs for four years. We’re just asking for a lower COLA than every other labor group in the entire city received. The city wants you to think this is about contract negotiations. But it’s not —  among the firefighters, it’s not about money. We’ve always been compensated well.” 

To Shenbaum, who is nearing retirement, and to many of his colleagues, what is at stake is the future of the department. They have less skin in this game. New firefighters will be most impacted, particularly those hired in the future. 

“The bottom line is what the City wants to do will damage this fire department and it will reduce public safety,” Shenbaum said. 

Firefighter/paramedic Patrick Jacobson, who is one of the younger members of the MBFD crew, said the City’s approach has left the entire department reeling. 

“The City is not after one particular thing, because we’ve actually given up on several of these issues,” he said. “They want everything. And that is what makes it so frustrating for us. It’s an impossible thing to ask. We can talk about trying to make something work with two-tiering, or civilianizing fire prevention or reducing overtime. But they want everything.  It doesn’t work to try and negotiate with them because it’s not just tiering, it’s not just overtime. It’s not just fire prevention, and those two positions. It’s all of it, which would be devastating for our department in every way — the current employees, the future employees, and the community would all suffer. So that’s what’s frustrating on our behalf.” 

Hadley is unapologetic about the hard line that City has taken in negotiations. Because, she said, of course it is about money. 

“My son is a captain in the Army. He makes about $95,000 including his base housing allowance,” Hadley said. “There is no overtime in the armed forces. He has little control over where he is stationed. He is away from his wife for weeks and months at a time. He’s not complaining, nor am I. In fact, this council has three council members with sons either in the military or recently discharged. They all signed up for military duty and are proud to serve. Our public safety officials are indeed community heroes. But they are also well compensated for what they do. Some MB firefighters make more in OT than they do in base salary. This isn’t healthy for our firefighters, nor is it in the best interests of the taxpayer.”

An MBFD firefighter/paramedic engages with local students.

The evolution of MBFD 

Dennis Groat was the chief of the Manhattan Beach Fire Department from 1994 until 2008. The department he left behind was vastly different from the one he had inherited. 

Fire departments across the state had been decimated in the wake of Prop. 13. MBFD was bare bones, with no battalion chiefs, a fire marshall, a secretary, and 24 firefighters. MBFD was the same as now in that it had three units, but only one was staffed with a paramedic. Because MBPD’s coverage area is bordered by a beach, it didn’t have as many mutual aid options as inland cities to provide paramedic assistance. So calls requiring multiple paramedics, or multiple calls occurring simultaneously, were a challenge to fulfill. Groat and city management launched a program to train more firefighters as paramedics to meet this need in-house. 

“It became pretty clear, as a paramedic program was so successful, that the big demand, especially in cities like Manhattan Beach, was for medical aid,” Groat said. 

The County had also changed its rules, making it possible for fire engines to also serve as “paramedic assessment units” if they carried at least one paramedic, broadening the possibility for expanding paramedic capability. Fire service was changing everywhere in the United States, with modernized construction, and building codes reducing structural fires. In Manhattan Beach, already 75 percent of MBFD calls were for medical assistance. 

“The City, the HR director, and I, started on track to have all three on duty emergency fire units to be full paramedic capable,” Groat said. “And that way we weren’t dependent on having an outside agency or a long response time on mutual aid to get a paramedic on the scene when we have simultaneous calls. To do that, we made sure we had staffing on them every day. And frankly, it gives you more flexibility when you have multi victim incidents. For instance, you have a traffic collision with multiple victims or you have sometimes an overdose situation — something like that involves more than one person, or trauma calls with more than one person —  having that extra paramedic on the scene was hugely beneficial, so we started down a path to get everyone certified as a paramedic.” 

The idea of what a firefighter could be evolved. Broader education incentives were also put in place, and the firefighters likewise gained broader knowledge of the city and all its structures and byways by rotating as fire prevention officers. 

 By the time Groat left in 2008, MBFD could arguably be called one of the most fully modernized fire services in the world, built to respond to the actual needs of the populace it served rather than maintaining vestiges of a fire department built strictly to fight fires. Those early paramedic assessment fire engines carried limited medical equipment and a single paramedic; today, more fully equipped units roll the streets with full paramedic capability. And each call has full life support capability, something unheard of a few decades ago. The trend Groat identified has only increased with time —  today, 80 percent of the 3,500 calls MBFD responds to are medical in nature. 

“Chief Groat was the right chief at the right time, a forward thinking leader who recognized the value of a cross trained, 100 percent paramedic fire department,” said MBFD Capt. Tom Desmond. “He recognized that as a small department we could bring a higher level of service to the community in an efficient and cost effective manner, a service model that would allow us to care for the community well into the future. In fact, this service model is now being implemented throughout California. Visionary leadership.” 

MBFD became known as “the pride of the South Bay.” It was both about the capability of MBFD, but also about a culture that evolved, a small department in which there was a genuine sense of mission and a belief that they had collectively built one of the best fire services anywhere. A story circulated at the time that an LA County firefighter approached an MBFD firefighter and asked, “So, when is Manhattan Beach going to go County?” The MBFD firefighter looked him in the eye and responded, “When is County going to go Manhattan Beach?” 

“I think there was a lot of esprit de corps and department pride, and firefighters had a lot of job satisfaction,” Groat said. “… I thought it was more environmental than anything else. We changed that environment, and Manhattan Beach became more or less a destination department. After a lot of years of hard work by a lot of people — the city manager, HR, myself, the fire association, the firefighters —  it seemed to be, to me, a highly functional, highly spirited, highly motivated group of people and a highly desirable place to work.” 

Many of the veteran MBFD firefighters came up through this environment, which is partly why the changes proposed by the City appear to them to be tearing down the department rather than supporting it. The loss of the fire prevention rotation, for example, in addition to taking away the institutional knowledge firefighters gain through serving as fire inspector and fire marshall, also means the loss of two paramedic firefighters. 

Shenbaum said that civilianizing fire prevention is not industry standard, and notes that many agencies actually place battalion chiefs in those positions, which is more expensive than how MBFD’s existing structure covers those duties. He also said that for a small department having firefighter paramedics in those positions creates more flexibility. 

“People have had COVID and had to go home twice this week, where I have to pull out someone in from fire prevention, who luckily are firefighter paramedics, and put them on the fire engine for six hours until we can get to come back to work to work to fill the vacancy,” he said. “And they want to civilianize fire prevention? I mean, you only have 26 people. Either invest in your small fire department, or go County or do some South Bay consolidation, one of the three. But I just don’t understand their position.” 

The City has said that if MBFA gives up the “constant staffing” provision in its contract, it will hire more firefighters —  but this more a promise than a formal proposal, and given the tumultuous nature of the last five years, there is little trust left. 

Hadley said the council will authorize the hiring of more firefighters as a means of reducing overtime. 

“This council is committed to public safety,” she said. “Over 60 percent of our city budget goes to police and fire. I’m willing to spend more. But we need to enlarge the size of the fire department before we pay more in OT. Excessive OT burns out our firefighters leading to increases in fatigue, injury, and earlier retirements.”

Constant staffing is not highly unusual among fire departments, which because of their 24/7 operations and need for a specific mix of positions to always be available, codify how these needs are met via collective bargaining. MBFD’s provision states, “The Association and the City agree that the current constant staffing program of eight (8) persons per shift shall be maintained excepting that the City, in anticipation of vacancies, may hire three (3) additional fire employees to fill anticipated vacancies for a period not to exceed four (4) months prior to such vacancy actually occurring unless such time limit is specifically waived by the Association.”

Overtime is built into this model of staffing. Firefighters work 48 hours on, then 96 hours off.  Everything over 56 hours is counted as overtime. In order to keep overall staffing to a minimum, as well as to keep the appropriate mix of positions, when someone is out sick or on vacation, that vacancy is filled by a firefighter who would otherwise be off-duty. The counterintuitive idea underlying this model is that the built in overtime makes a department more efficient, with fewer positions and therefore less benefits and retirement to pay. It is intended to save money or at least be cost-neutral.

Vincent, the City’s communications manager, said that while constant staffing is not unusual, the language of the MBFA agreement is unusually binding. 

“What is unusual about the MBFA’s MOU language is that it designates eight employees per shift as a prescribed number, rather than a minimum number, and precludes the hiring of additional employees except to fill on an overtime basis,” she said. “Therefore, when eight per shift is both the minimum and maximum, every single shift of vacation or injury leave is backfilled on an overtime basis to maintain the staffing level of eight.” 

Groat said the constant staffing model evolved in the ‘70s. “It was basically an economic decision,” he said. “It wasn’t any big negotiation for the firefighters.” 

The Council contends that this staffing model, along with management’s inability to control vacation time, is driving excessive overtime costs. Two firefighters earned over $200,000 in overtime pay last year, and several more over $100,000. 

“Overtime that reaches or even exceeds what our firefighters make in base salary is unhealthy for our fire department,” Hadley said. “If it’s unhealthy for our firefighters, it reduces public safety. In addition, excessive OT costs too much for taxpayers. We need the opportunity to hire more firefighters, reduce burnout and fatigue, and thereby increase public safety.”

But firefighters point out the fact that the City has always had the ability to “over-hire,” particularly when they are notified in advance of an upcoming retirement, which is usually the case. Yet this practice has not been utilized. 

Jim Muth, who retired as a captain/paramedic in 2019 after 34 years, recently wrote a letter to residents for the MB Strong citizens group newsletter. He recounted his experience. 

“I announced my retirement one year in advance,” Muth wrote. “When I notified the City, which included the Fire Chief and the Human Resources department, the City Manager, and HR Director should have filled the vacancy immediately to reduce costs. Instead, it took the City 21 months to fill the vacancy, leading to over $300,000 in overtime costs that firefighters were forced to work, and now the City blames the firefighters for making too much money.” 

The City, citing data compiled by the State Comptroller’s website, argues that MBFD’s overtime led to the department having the highest compensation dating back to 2015. According to that data, the “average salary per incumbent” for MBFD was $241,272 in 2015, dipped slightly lower the next four years to $225,736 in 2017, then rose back to $251,189 in 2020. 

“This is largely based on their overtime,” Vincent said. “During the 2018 negotiations with the Fire Association, it was determined that on the basis of a per employee average, the Fire Association was the top earner of any other City fire department throughout the state of California each year 2015 – 2017. As a result of this information, the City Council began to review additional terms of the Fire MOU, to determine potential changes that could be made in an effort to reduce this excessive overtime. It’s important to note that the Fire Association employees continued to be the top earners in the state in 2018 and 2019, years in which the Fire Association positions were fully staffed [ no vacancies].” 

MBFA’s data, however, shows that its per capita cost to the community — what the fire department costs per person in the city —  is $414, lower than several nearby cities, including Beverly Hills at $1,456, El Segundo at $1,022, and Santa Monica at $509. Firefighter staffing per capita —  firefighters per 1,000 residents — is .26, compared to 1.16 in El Segundo, .68 in Beverly Hills, and .36 in Santa Monica. It is the lowest, in fact, among the seven comparable cities surveyed. 

Shenbaum said the city’s calculations are misleading. 

“What they’re not taking into consideration is the amount of hours that we’re working and that we are a very small fire department that runs just like Torrance, just like LA County, just like Glendale, or Burbank or, West Covina,” Shenbaum said.  “But because of our low number of people and the vacancies that we have had open per incumbent, we were the highest paid. So what we’re trying to show is, that might be a factual number, but it’s very misleading to the public, because increase our staffing or fill your vacancies and that number would go down. Also, you’re comparing us to Kern County or Monroe County that might have 30 people in an academy that started November that make $1,000 a month for their six months and you only captured two months…So it takes their salary down to almost nothing. And they have a current commit number of like 1,200 people in their department. So it’s very dissonant.” 

And of course, compensation also is intended to take into account the cost of living where firefighters live. 

“We’re all paramedics and we’re within LA County,” Shenbaum said. “So it really is deceiving what they’re doing. What we are saying is look, we’re so efficient, as a small, boutique fire department, that you’re getting the biggest bang for your buck.  Because per resident, we are the smallest and most efficient fire department in the land.” 

Mayor Steve Napolitano said that everyone in the City is a fan of its fire department, but that the numbers —  specifically, the total compensation —  do not lie. He said the council has to implement change as a matter of fiscal responsibility. 

MBFD firefighters train an aspiring future firefighter. Photo courtesty MBFD

“We have great firefighters and who doesn’t love firefighters? Everyone does,” Napolitano said.  “And they’re totally using that to their advantage. They’ve hired a consultant and are running a slick campaign with door hangers and animated ads claiming mismanagement while only asking to be treated fairly. It’s a great campaign by them. It’s also totally inaccurate and misleading. Unfortunately, that’s part of their labor-negotiating tactic. They’ve been offered the same cost-of-living increase for 2022 that was agreed upon for other labor groups. Additionally, we have proposed a way to substantially reduce the stress and burnout of overtime that has made their members the highest paid employees on average of any city fire department in the state. They’ve continuously rejected City Council’s proposals, leaving us to basically negotiate against ourselves which we’ve chosen not to do anymore. They seem more interested in negotiating the Battalion Chief contract than their own. I don’t blame them for wanting to keep all they have and still get more, but no matter how much we love our firefighters, we can’t write them a blank check, and negotiations can’t keep being a moving target year after year. It’s time to move forward one way or another.”    

The two sides, in other words, remain far apart. 

On Tuesday, MBFA made a new proposal. They offered to change the constant staffing provision to a minimum staffing model —  which means the City could hire new firefighters without MBFA approval, but guarantees each shift will still be staffed with eight firefighters. 

James Fall, a fire engineer/paramedic who is also the vice president of MBFA, said the change definitively takes away the straw man argument the City has been making that it could not hire firefighters without MBFA approval. The hope is this will indeed move things forward. He said MBFA has always been open to hiring more firefighters to better serve the community. 

“The City however has failed over the last four years to share a viable, safe plan of what that would look like,” Falls said. “We are begging for a vison and a plan for the future of our fire department.” 

To be continued. ER 


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