“The government’s Internal Audit Unit found in July 2016 that more than 69,000 hours paid in firefighter overtime during 2015, at a cost of nearly $1.7 million, is the equivalent of 33 full-time employees working 40 hours per week for the full year.”
– “Report: Firefighters battle staff shortages,” Cayman Compass
You read that correctly: In the year 2015, Cayman Islands firefighters racked up 69,000 hours of overtime.
The bill for all that overtime came to nearly $1.7 million, which is a 44 percent increase over the Cayman Islands Fire Service’s $1.1 million overtime bill in 2014.
(Meanwhile, we’ve learned – and report on Page 1 – that prison guards have been racking up about $1 million per year in overtime pay at the Immigration Detention Centre.)
Almost as bad as the fire service’s reliance on overtime is the explanation offered for it – that some firefighters have taken high numbers of sick days.
(As any chief financial officer of any company will tell you, consistent overtime in an organization is not unlike financial heroin: It quickly becomes an addiction, and employees soon become dependent on the extra income in their paychecks.)
We can’t help but also observe that the amount of firefighter overtime generated in 2015, which is equivalent to the cost of 33 full-time employees, isn’t too far off from the number of vacancies in the department – 39 positions.
Put another way, it seems that firefighters have been picking up the slack (and then some) for colleagues who aren’t showing up for work, or who haven’t been hired yet. That’s a kind way of appraising the situation.
A less kind way might be to question whether Cayman’s firefighters have been taking advantage of the “status quo” in order to engorge their bank accounts at the taxpayers’ expense.
According to the Internal Audit Unit report that revealed the figures for 2015, “The issue of severe staff shortages, including the negative impacts it can have on fire officers and those persons relying on them, has been noted in two [earlier] reports. However, we noted that no actions [have] been taken to address the findings presented in those reports [from 2011 and 2013].”
In May 2015, while firefighters were in the midst of racking up their $1.7 million overtime tab, the Compass unearthed (through an open records request) a 2014 review of Cayman’s Fire Service performed by England’s Chief Fire and Rescue Advisor Peter Holland.
As we described it in a news headline at the time, the Holland Report was “scathing.” Mr. Holland stated in his 22-page report, “This review discovered a pervading view that firefighters are ‘well paid to do nothing.’”
The Holland Report called for restructuring and downsizing the Fire Service, noting that “The level of demand for the fire service expressed in terms of fire calls and incidents attended is at consistently low levels.”
During government’s 2012/13 budget year, police responded to 25,901 calls, emergency medical services (ambulances) responded to 3,570 calls, and the fire service responded to 867 calls – fewer than three per day.
Accordingly, the Holland Report recommended, in addition to reducing their numbers, retraining and reassigning firefighters to neglected duties, such as building safety inspections.
Since the release of the Holland Report and the accumulation of overtime in 2015, the Fire Service has gotten a new leader, Chief Fire Officer David Hails, who started his three-year contract in February 2016.
Mr. Hails arrived with a sparkling professional background, including nearly 40 years of firefighting experience. When he took the job, he certainly knew the structural challenges that had been exposed by Mr. Holland’s review and other reports.
Now that Mr. Hails has been in Cayman for more than a year, a fair question is: What are his plans to remediate the dysfunctional department he inherited?