Burbank Boosts Recruitment Efforts for Fire and Police Departments

Flowing water from Truck 11 and Engine 11 while fire recruits handles handlines during a past graduation exercise (Photo by Ross A. Benson)

As we enter the early stages of 2021, the City of Burbank is making strong efforts in upholding aggressive recruitment in both the Burbank Fire and Police Departments. 

The BPD is currently staffed at 148 sworn officers, just dipping below their maximum capacity of 160. Over recent years, staffing reached a low point of around 130 officers, but a significant hiring process in 2020 has improved this figure. 

BPD Deputy Chief Mike Albanese states the current number of officers is standard and they have faced routine adjustments which the city compensates for in their recruitment process.

“Recruitment and hiring ebbs and flows,” Albanese said. “We’ve used an aggressive recruiting campaign which has resulted in 23 new hires in the past year, including three out-of-state hires coming back to California.”

BPD Recruit Class 453 from Rio Hondo (Photo Courtesy of Burbank Police Department)

The BPD maintains that transfers in recent years have been largely due to personal decisions to relocate to other areas or move into different workforce positions entirely.

“[Officers are] either moving out of the area due to…family decisions [and] concerns, or they’ve elected to go to an agency that is a totally different type of law enforcement,” BPD Lieutenant and Burbank Police Officers’ Association President, J.J. Puglisi, said. “We’ve had three or four folks over the last several years [who] have left to go to the D.A. investigators position, and so that’s much different than doing patrol work or… policing on the streets.”

Although overtime work does occur with a 12-person shortage on the BPD patrol staff, the department remains cautious in how they distribute these hours in order to limit overspending and worker fatigue. This process starts with the BPD seeking out volunteers for the extra positions and filling them with overtime hours as a last resort measure.

“We…have minimum staffing levels to maintain, particularly in patrol,” Puglisi said. “And there are occasions when those staffing levels fall short and they’re going to fill those spots with overtime just to meet those levels. So it does happen. It’s something that the department is …mindful of, something the association’s mindful of.”

In regards to recruitment, Albanese predicts a generous number of hires to come in 2021 after “bountiful numbers” of recruits throughout 2020. The year-end goal for 2021 sees the number of recruits being in the high 150’s. In addition, BPD personnel are pleased with the diversity emerging from their hiring process, which they hope will add to their currently 39% diverse workforce. 

BPD Sergeant Emil Brimway says that 2020 has been their “most successful recruitment in years.” Brimway added that overall diversity has increased, although they are still looking to increase the presence of female officers, which is currently at 13% of their total officers.

Recent Recruit Class. (Photo Courtesy Burbank Police Dept.)

“BPD is more diverse than ever and the demographics of those hired in 2020 increased the diversity of the department even more,” Brimway said. “The demographics of the department are more diverse than those of the city, with the exception of female officers. We are on par with most department’s in the region in terms of female officers; however, we are actively looking to increase those numbers.”

Whereas the BPD is budgeted for 160 personnel, the Burbank Fire Department’s budget allows for a total of 120 firefighters. And, as opposed to the current 11 police officer vacancies, there is a shortage of 15 firefighters for the BFD. In addition, The BFD is presently a 22% diverse workforce.

Staffing levels have “traditionally gone up and down through retirements and injuries,” Simone McFarland, Burbank Assistant Director of Community Development and PIO, says. This includes 13 firefighter transfers to other agencies over the past two years. McFarland credits recent transfers to an overall greater request for fire personnel and therefore a more aggressive hiring process across the board. 

“A large majority of the transfers have been to larger fire departments [such as] Los Angeles County Fire FD and Orange County Fire FD,” McFarland said. “There is a higher demand for firefighters and firefighter-paramedics industry-wide, which has created [a] very competitive job market. This has resulted in movement based on location and perceived opportunity and personal benefits.”

Burbank Firefighters Local 778 President Eric Rowley has served as a BFD firefighter since 2005. During his time working for the City, Rowley has seen a drastic shift in BFD staffing levels stemming from the higher demand for recruitment throughout Southern California. 

“[It’s] pretty alarming,” Rowley said of recent BFD personnel departures. “I’ve been a firefighter here for fifteen years, coming on sixteen years. And we’ve had a few people trickle out here and there, but it’s never been that substantial throughout the history of the fire department. The fire service, in general, is seeing a very unique time right now.”

These unique circumstances involve larger fire department agencies making their recruitment process easier in order to attract newcomers, as well as lateral fire department transfers. Adjustments such as shortening their 16-week recruitment course to a six-week program and matching previous pay rates have limited new hiree pools and personnel retention for the BFD.

When matched with the consistently increasing cost of living in Burbank, not only are out-of-town BFD recruits narrowing, it’s also causing locals to seek employment in more affordable areas. 

Burbank Fire Recruits use the tools of the trade, Jaws Of Life’, and others to demonstrate some of the techniques they learned in the academy. (Photo by Ross A. Benson)

“When I came on the job we had we had close to two dozen firefighters that lived in town, that grew up in Burbank, lived in Burbank or moved to Burbank because they realize what a good place it is to live,” Rowley said. “Right now we only have one [local firefighter]. And outside of that, the closest individual that lives in the city is probably 20 [or] 30 minutes away. So that’s significant.”

Consequent deficits in personnel presence have served as a strain for BFD staff as they face excess hours on the job to serve the Burbank community. 

“A major challenge for BFD has been our staffing level and the additional workload to fill the daily vacancies,” McFarland said. “These extra shifts are above and beyond regular scheduled duty and have taken a tremendous toll on our firefighters and their families.”  

The BFD’s minimum daily staffing level is 36 fire people, and, due to recent transfers, the department may experience an average of anywhere from 3-6 vacancies each day. The department compensates with overtime to achieve MSL, which averages an overtime hiring cost of $5600 a day, a figure McFarland notes is largely off-set by budgeted position salary savings.

The department is responding by ramping up its current recruitment process in order to prevent overtime costs and employee stress from the overtime work schedule. This includes 1449 applicants for their most recent recruitment endeavor, with a total of 20 candidates beginning BFD training in early February of 2021. 

Recruit Firefighter pulls a 2 1/2 fire hose to a nearby hydrant during a past graduation exercise. (Photo by Ross A. Benson)

“These are difficult times,” Rowley said. “And I commend the city for how they’re navigating their way through this. It’s been very, very good.”

As recruits continue to make up for staffing shortfalls, the BFD continues to provide the city with proficient and reliable response services. 

“BFD is committed to providing exceptional emergency services to the Burbank community while also balancing the fiscal responsibility that comes with operating an all-risk fire service agency,” McFarland said. “The Fire Chief and Command Staff routinely assess operational needs and community risk while also recognizing budgetary limitations. BFD is committed to meeting the expectations of the community and further demonstrates its commitment through a culture of continuous improvement.”

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    1. What a load of crap. Year after year it is the same story. The fact is the police and fire departments have many, many officers/fireman making over $200,000.00 per year with overtime and do not want to give it up. Our elected officials let it happen – could it be due to having one retired fireman and one retired policeman on the city council? Or, perhaps the city council allows this to curry favor for the union vote? It is a bad idea to overwork a person with a gun and expect that tired person to make life and death decisions. Would you want a paramedic to render aide to you if they are lacking sleep? Overtime baby, overtime!

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