More than a dozen Palo Alto firefighters, including many in leadership positions, are expected to retire in the next year or two, prompting the department to ramp up its succession planning, Fire Chief Eric Nickel told a City Council committee Tuesday night.
The new wave of retirement is expected to hit double digits, roughly equal to the one that hit the department two years ago, when the city trimmed pension benefits for the fire union and began requiring employee contributions for medical care. This time, demographics are largely to blame. The average age in the department is 42 to 43 years, senior analyst Ian Hagerman told the Finance Committee Tuesday. He said 17 employees are currently eligible for retirement and 49 can retire within the next five years.
The trend helped fuel the department's higher overtime expenditures this fiscal year, in part due to increased training. Last week, the department reported that it had spent $718,000 on overtime in the first quarter, which started July 1 -- 50 percent of its annual budget and $133,000 more than it had expended last year during the same period.
"As you're aware, fire has had many transitions with its middle- and upper-level management troop," Nickel said. "We anticipate another round of retirements in the next 18 months. Our goal is to prepare battalion chiefs and captains to fill those roles."
Nickel said that in a typical year, two to four people retire. The year before he arrived, more than a dozen retired. He said he expects to see a similar figure in the next 18 months. Two employees, he noted, had announced their retirements on Monday.
The increased training accounts for about $40,000 in the overtime increase, Nickel said. Other factors include the department's assistance with the Rim Fire in Yosemite, which added $20,000 to overtime cost (the funds will be reimbursed by the state) and an increase in worker-compensation claims. Last year, Nickel said, the department had four claims. This time there were eight.
Nickel also said the department is devoting more resources toward strategic planning and fire-prevention efforts. In doing so, it is responding to a critical report that the city received three years ago from the firms TriData and ICMA Consulting Services. The agencies praised the department's day-to-day performance but faulted it for shoddy long-term planning and "leadership malaise."
The department's actions, Nickel said, are in alignment with those studies in terms of executive-level planning and succession planning. This included about $30,000 the department has spent on a strategic five-year plan, a document that will be released in the coming weeks. Department members have also taken part in a management-training program, Blue Card Command Certification Program.
Even with the increase in spending, Nickel said, the department's goal is to stay at or below budget in the fiscal year.
Heavy overtime expenditures in the Fire Department have long been a source of frustration for members of the City Council, particularly during the lean years after the 2008 recession. Last year, the council and the firefighters agreed to abolish the long-standing "minimum staffing" provision in the union contract, which mandated that 29 firefighters be on duty at all times. The provision was seen as a major driver of overtime costs that routinely exceeded budget projections.
While this year's overtime figures represent an increase over last year, members of the council's Finance Committee were generally satisfied with Nickel's explanations. Their biggest concern was over the rise of worker-compensation cases, which Nickel characterized as a "spike" but not a "trend."
"I certainly enthusiastically support your spending time on strategic planing, training and risk reduction," Councilman Greg Schmid told Nickel.