I-Team: Public Trust: Firefighter Salaries - 8 News NOW

Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Photojournalist Matt Adams

I-Team: Public Trust: Firefighter Salaries

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LAS VEGAS -- Radio muckraker Frank Costigan is not anti-firefighter. He not only worked as one in two states, but was an elected officer in a firefighters union. In his current job as community watchdog along the Colorado River, however, he's ticked off about the salaries earned by Clark County firefighters stationed in Laughlin.

"When you cross the river, things change," he said. "The average firefighter on the Arizona side earns $34,000 to $38,000 a year. When you come over here to Laughlin, it doubles or triples, not counting the overtime. When you start manipulating the system to where you get overtime that is double or sometimes triple their salary, you lose the sympathy of the public."

Of all the heated issues surrounding firefighter pay, the situation in Laughlin might be the stickiest for firefighters to explain. If you look at the list of highest-earning employees in Clark County, it is dominated by firefighters. Of those, the largest concentration is in Laughlin. The little casino town on the river has two fire stations and 48 firefighters. Among those are a deputy chief, 10 fire captains and 13 engineers. Ten Laughlin firefighters earn $185,000 a year or more. Laughlin gobbled up $1.5 million in firefighter overtime last year.

Read the firefighter's contract

Why so much? Is Laughlin ablaze? Not exactly. During the 20 minutes when the I-Team was outside the Laughlin fire station, every unit sprung into action. The ambulance, the big rig, even the water rescue team responded. But, fire records show there was no emergency that afternoon. So, all of this activity may have been for the I-Team's benefit. In fact, the two stations at Laughlin are among the five least busy in the county. They responded to only 13 structure fires last year and 41 fires in all, including brush and car fires. They helped in seven water rescues and responded to hundreds of medical emergencies involving elderly tourists. In all, they responded to 2,800 calls in 2009. That compares with 23,000 calls for the busiest fire station in Las Vegas. In essence, the Laughlin firefighters earn the most and do the least. Because they work outside the valley, they earn an extra five percent.

It's a perk called remote pay. "They go down there for the last three years, and it bumps (their pay) with supplemental pay," Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak said. "It bumps their retirement benefits, so the retirement benefits end up exceeding what their wages were."

Commissioner Sisolak thinks remote pay is one example of how firefighters have exploited the public's high regard for the profession. The current contract is packed with extra goodies, excluding the whole overtime issue. They get extra percentages for all the things they do other than fight fires. Those who do river rescues get an extra percentage. They get extra for hazardous material duty, for technical rescues, trench rescues, rope rescues, and canine duty. They even receive extra for being bilingual.

Eighty percent of the calls are for medical emergencies, so EMT training would seem a given. But, firefighters get up to 12% extra for certification in emergency medicine, and they keep earning it the rest of their career. That includes captains and engineers who don't perform such work.

Clark County firefighters union president Ryan Beaman says if his members are doing the work, they should get the pay. "Just like any other industry out there, if you add an additional duty, there is additional pay," he said.

EMT training is mostly carried out while firefighters are on the clock, so why should it be extra? Beaman says some of the certification is done on the firefighters' own time. He says he proposed doing away with it, but the county declined. As for the remote pay in Laughlin, Beaman admits that those with seniority bid to be assigned to Laughlin, not so much for the extra pay, but because of the slower pace. Since Laughlin could experience high rise fires, it needs experienced people.

"Years ago, there was no additional pay for Laughlin, and you had all the junior people there," Beaman said. "You have an hour-and-a-half before you have any backup protection, so you need the experienced guys in that area."

Most importantly, he says, the extras given to firefighters weren't stolen. They were negotiated over years and approved by the county. The overtime mess exists, he says, because the county won't hire more firefighters. His members were told to work the overtime or risk termination. "We are being made out to be the bad guy for being forced to work all this overtime," Beaman said. "The county has decided it is cheaper to pay the overtime."

The firefighters union said Monday that the problem of excess overtime could be solved immediately if the county would simply fill open positions and hire more firefighters. As for all of the other issues, the extra perks, they are difficult to discuss in detail in a news report. Suffice to say, there are two sides to each of the issues. Budget realities might force an open discussion of them.

All this week, the I-Team will be looking at government salaries. We've compiled a comprehensive list from several governments and agencies and you can see it here.

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