In promising signs for the Burbank Fire Department, recruitment numbers and wages are on the upswing after staffing shortages threatened the operation of one of the city’s six fire engines late last year,
The department will kick off a 16-week recruit academy next week, with 21 new firefighter recruits primed to join the force in 2023.
The city of Burbank reached a contract agreement with the Burbank Firefighters local 778, an affiliate of the California Professional Firefighters union, promising to put an emphasis on firefighter recruitment and retention.
Due to a shortage of firefighters on the payroll in November 2022, the city was forced to reallocate firefighters from other stations to keep the Fire Engine 12 running. At the time, Fire Chief Eric Garcia told the City Council that he had “grave concerns for the vitality of the BFD if steps are not taken to correct retention and recruitment challenges.”
Over the last two years, the BFD has lost 18 employees to other agencies, 11 of whom were paramedics. Emergency medical service incidents account for about 80% of the department’s call volume.
“These losses have not only caused a negative impact on morale but have added significant financial strain on the department. In fact, BFD estimates spending $2.25 million on academies and paramedic training over the last two years, only to lose new staff to other agencies,” said City Manager Justin Hess.
Now, with the addition of 21 recruits, the number of firefighters on the force would be brought to 142, BFD staff said.
“Burbank Fire Department continues to staff all six fire engines, two fire trucks and three rescue ambulances assigned to the city’s six fire stations,” said BFD Battalion Chief David Burke. “With the addition of the new firefighters hitting the line in June, the agency will be better able fill all the daily staffing requirements.”
In order to qualify for the 16-week training academy, recruits underwent a rigorous testing and selection process that included written, physical, and psychological exams, interviews and an extensive background check which consists of a truth verification test — sometimes referred to as a polygraph test.
“Once all facets of the testing and background were completed, the fire chief interviewed and selected the members to be hired to start the academy,” Burke told the Leader.
Burke said that all the selected recruits had high scores during testing, interviews and background checks, and all are expected to be successful. Although graduation rates from the 16-week academy vary from class to class, the 2021 academy started with 20 recruits, and 18 graduated.
“The recruits will endure a 16-week basic fire academy that follows the California fire training curriculum. The subjects include hose, ladders, wildland, technical rescue, driver operator, live fire training, ventilation and forcible entry,” Burke said.
Burke told the Leader in an interview late last year that the department was losing firefighters because other departments throughout the region offer higher pay and benefits. An agreement signed in February between the city of Burbank and Burbank Firefighters Local 778, or BFF, sought to address this issue.
“The city and the BFF successfully worked together to reach an agreement on a new contract that will assist in recruiting and retaining a well-qualified fire department work force,” said City Manager Justin Hess. “The city thanks the BFF for its partnership and looks forward to continued exceptional service from our fire department.”
Negotiations with the BFF began in June 2022. Since then, city staff and the BFF held 19 meetings to reach a tentative agreement that will benefit both BFF members and the city, Hess wrote in a report to the City Council. According to that report, negotiations centered on a city policy to compensate employees at a “level commensurate with the average of Burbank’s relevant market.”
Negotiations also focused on how to most effectively address the unprecedented recruitment and retention challenges faced industrywide and within the BFD.
The three-year agreement includes significant yearly wage increases for firefighters, an increase to health insurance contributions by the city, longevity pay, and a yearly boost in base salary for paramedics.
The City Council unanimously approved the contract last month.
“The new [agreement] puts Burbank Fire Department’s compensation and benefits package in a much more advantageous position to compete with other departments,” Burke told the Leader.
The BFF could not be contacted for comment before the Leader’s press deadline Friday.
First published in the March 11 print issue of the Burbank Leader.