Lincoln Fire and Rescue pays out millions of overtime in 2019, says it all comes down to a staffing problem

LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Lincoln firefighters already work 16 hours a week more than a regular full-time job, however, in recent years they've been asked to work even more.

"The most I've ever worked was last year," Brian Lesac, fire apparatus operator for Lincoln Fire and Rescue said.

Lesac said he worked 600 hours of overtime in 2019, and he wasn't alone in racking up the hours.

"Overtime used to be rare," he said.

It's not anymore.

10/11 NOW obtained the City of Lincoln's 2019 salary database and learned Lincoln Fire & Rescue paid more than $2.8 million dollars in overtime in 2019.

Chief Michael Despain said as long as the increase in overtime is short term, this doesn't impact the budget.

"The city allocates a budget and whether it's salary or overtime it isn't a big deal, we'll still fall within our budget by the end of the year."

While it's not a budget problem, it's indicative of a staffing problem.

Despain said the department is short 20 to 25 firefighters, so to meet minimum staffing needs, firefighters have to fill in the gaps by working overtime.

"It's tough when you have to make the decision of hey, I could make a little extra money to help ends meet easier, but I am tired and I do need a rest," Lesac said.

Despain said overtime isn't mandatory.

But the alternative is shutting down stations, so firefighters like Lesac come back to work, even after working a full 56 hour week.

"The department needs me, the citizens need me, ultimately my firefighter brothers and sisters need me," Lesac said.

Despain said he's aware working hours of overtime can be dangerous.

"It'd be like equal to someone being intoxicated, we can't let them work too many hours, we have to at least let them rest when they can during their shifts," Despain said.

Even with firefighters like Lesac working extra hours, the department still isn't fully staffed.

Adam Schrunk, president of the Lincoln Firefighter's Association said it's recommended that every fire engine and fire truck operates with four firefighters on board.

Every day, LFR runs more than half of its rigs with three people instead of four.

"Everything is significantly more difficult when you only have three people on a rig," Schrunk said.

Schrunk said it does impact patient outcomes to have fewer than four people on a rig, and it's frustrating to be on the other side of that.

Despain said the city allocates enough money to hire all the firefighters needed to be fully staffed.

They just can't do it.

"It's difficult to find the people with the right qualifications who get all the way through our background checks," Despain said. "Even when we do hire them it can be 18 months before they're adding to our mandatory minimums because of all the training."

Schrunk said he recognizes that the job has gotten more difficult.

LFR is running more calls than ever between fires, emergencies, the EMT services and hazardous materials response.

There's also the exposure to carcinogens and dangerous situations that could deter applicants.

Lesac said there are also really great parts of the job too.

"I get to help people every day," Lesac said. "When you go on those calls you might be tired but you've helped someone and they're appreciative and it helps keep the drive going.

The department is hiring entry-level firefighters until Feb. 28.

Despain said the minimum requirements include being 19 years of age or older, have graduated high school, physically fit and have a clean criminal background.

But once applicants get past those requirements, they need to meet one big expectation.

"We're looking for people who have a servant's heart, who want to help people," Despain said.

Despain said this recruitment class could get them one step closer to helping staffing go up and overtime to go down.