Who Stays – and Who Goes – at the S.F. Fire Department

by Paul Hogarth on June 21, 2010

To close San Francisco’s $483 million deficit, the Fire Department has laid off just three employees – all of them civilians, and all of them women. Margaret O’Sullivan worked for ten years as the Department’s Medical Leave Supervisor – a job that now no longer exists. By assisting injured firefighters with workers’ compensation claims, she helped save the City $1.5 million per month. Meanwhile, the Fire Department still has two Deputy Chiefs, five Assistant Deputy Chiefs, seven Assistant Chiefs and 38 Battalion Chiefs – all of whom get paid more than O’Sullivan did, and where targeted cuts could go a long way at reducing waste. Last summer, the Board of Supervisors took $6 million out of the Fire Department – but none of the cuts went to its top-heavy management. Now, Mayor Newsom’s Budget Proposal would give the Fire Department an extra $9.8 million. And while Budget Analyst Harvey Rose has identified $3 million in cuts (all of them modest proposals), Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White has so far been resistant.

How Margaret O’Sullivan Saved Money

In 2000, the Fire Department’s overtime costs and workers compensation issues were fast becoming an embarrassment. Then-Supervisor Leland Yee famously called it at a runaway train at a Board meeting, and Mayor Willie Brown knew he had to act. He appointed Margaret O’Sullivan – a registered nurse with an MBA – as Medical Leave Supervisor, to oversee and manage workers compensation claims for injured firefighters.

Ten years ago, the City had over 110 firefighters out per day on disability pay – which was costing the Fire Department over $2 million per month. Today, there are about 22 members out on disability – costing under $600,000 per month.

“With my management skills and background as a Registered Nurse,” explains O’Sullivan, “I was brought in to provide the administrative oversight, develop and implement policies and strategies to bring down costs with a Workers Compensation system inherently fraught with obstacles, and by its nature inefficient and difficult for any injured worker to maneuver through.”

While first appointed by Willie Brown, Margaret passed the Civil Service exam in 2005. “It’s common knowledge the Fire Department has a disability fraud problem,” she added. “It exists within our Department, as it does any big city department. It is there, it is real and it isn’t going away and needs constant surveillance and administrative oversight.”

But Margaret did not just cut costs by countering bogus claims. In a letter to the Fire Commission, Lieutenant Joseph Schiebold detailed how she assisted him when he had a real workplace injury last year. “If not for Margaret O’Sullivan,” he wrote, “I am sure the process would have dragged on for months without intervention. The fact that I was able to receive the appropriate treatments in a timely manner saved the Fire Department from having to backfill my position with overtime personnel, [which of course costs money.]”

One would expect a laid off employee to claim that their job was essential, but many at the Fire Department are equally upset. The SF Black Firefighters Association wrote a letter demanding that O’Sullivan be re-instated, and the former Medical Director said in an e-mail to Mayor Gavin Newsom that he was “appalled.” About a dozen current and past Fire Department Supervisors, Claims Adjusters and Assistants wrote a letter to Chief Joanne Hayes-White – saying they were “shocked and saddened” to hear of the layoff.

Civilian Employees: Last Hired, First Fired

The only stated reason for the layoff was to comply with Mayor Gavin Newsom’s request that all Department Heads make budget cuts. O’Sullivan was one of three employees at the Fire Department – the others being a Management Assistant and Senior Clerk Typist (all civilians, and all women) – to have their jobs cut for the fiscal year. One Lieutenant – who was not a General Fund position – was also re-assigned to a different division.

Both San Francisco’s Police and Fire Departments have sworn officers doing jobs better suited for civilians at lesser cost. But whenever there are budget cuts, civilian employees are always the first to go – to avoid a political liability for Newsom that he “laid off cops and firefighters.” At last week’s Budget Committee, Police Chief George Gascon gave indications that he’s making progress – but the problem persists at the Fire Department.

When the Mayor asked for mid-year cuts in December 2008, eleven civilian positions – and no firefighters – were deleted at the Fire Department, which resulted in five layoffs. When Newsom submitted his Budget last year, another five jobs – all civilian – were cut. As a civilian in the Fire Department, a job like Margaret O’Sullivan’s is always in danger – unless City Hall is willing to make wise fiscal decisions that are also politically risky.

Now, as Public Health and Human Services again face awful budget cuts like they do every year, the Mayor’s Proposed Budget gives the Fire Department an extra $9.8 million. According to Budget Analyst Harvey Rose, $7.5 million of that increase is due to mandatory fringe benefits (mostly retirement funds) – and most of the rest ($1.6 million) goes to salaries.

Where to Cut Fat at the Fire Department

At this time last year, Beyond Chron reviewed the Fire Department budget – and offered a few proposals on cutting waste. Most of our ideas came from Harvey Rose’s Budget Analysis for 2009-2010 – but as Margaret O’Sullivan explained to me, such reports only scratch the surface of a department’s budget. Better to have someone who worked at the Department for ten years, understands all the positions and can offer expert advice on making targeted cuts.

In a four-page letter to the Board of Supervisors, O’Sullivan offered a few suggestions:

Cut One of 2 Deputy Chiefs: The Fire Chief has two Deputy Chiefs – one is for Operations (supervising all fire stations), the other for Administration. The Deputy Chief of Administration, she wrote, “acts as an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy – and if kept at all should be civilianized.” All divisions he supervises – Personnel, Finance, Training, Homeland Security, Physician’s Office – could report to the Deputy Chief of Operations, or to the Chief herself. Last year, he took home $266,000 – not counting fringe benefits.

Cut 2 of 5 Assistant Deputy Chiefs: The Fire Department has five Assistant Deputy Chiefs – Airport, Homeland Security, Fire Prevention, Training & Support Services. Some of Support Services’ responsibilities will soon be discharged to the Public Utilities Commission, and the job can be demoted. So can the Fire Prevention position, which can be reclassified to a lower rank. Combined Savings: about $440,000.

Supervising Physician: The Department Physician’s Office, wrote O’Sullivan, does not treat firefighters and paramedics at the fire scene – and Davies Medical Center gets paid to do health check exams for the firefighters. This office does “return to work” exams (less than five a week), and other administrative detail. “There is no need for two physicians in the Department,” wrote O’Sullivan. Last year, the Supervising Physician in this office took home a salary plus premium pay of $155,000 – plus fringe benefits.

Other Positions: The Fire Department doesn’t need a Public Information Officer, when Battalion Chiefs (who take command of the fire scene) are capable of speaking to the press. A Firefighter making twice the salary of the Department’s secretaries sits at Headquarters processing Sunshine Requests. A Paramedic Captain does secretarial work for the Deputy Chief of Administration. Apparently, the Fire Department is the only City agency to have a Statistician – and five sworn officers (one Captain, one Paramedic and three Lieutenants) do work that can be delegated to the three Secretaries who work in the Training Division. Combined salaries of these jobs: over $1 million plus fringe benefits.

Battalion Chiefs and Rolling Brownouts

Beyond Chron had a list of suggestions last year that could save $8.25 million – even without re-opening the Firefighters Union contract. Some of these are echoed in O’Sullivan’s letter, but we also suggested: (a) laying off ten of the 38 Battalion Chiefs, and (b) rolling brownouts. One year later, we are at exactly the same place we were in these two categories.

Battalion Chiefs are mid-level managers who supervise a number of fire stations – and all but five made over $200,000 last year. The union contract requires that each of the nine battalions be staffed with a Battalion Chief 24 hours a day – so we could have 27 Battalion Chiefs and still be in compliance. But the Fire Department still has 38 Battalion Chiefs – including one not assigned to a Battalion (and who Harvey Rose advocated eliminating last year.)

At last week’s Budget Committee, Chair John Avalos said we should consolidate some of the Battalions – and the Budget Analyst’s Office is now in meetings with the Fire Chief. When the Budget Committee revisits the Fire Department budget on Thursday, there will hopefully have been some progress made – along with solid recommendations to pursue.

San Francisco has 42 fire stations – in a 47 square mile city. We could shut down one station (or do “rolling brownouts” of three), and save $2.6 million. A 2004 Controller’s Report also showed that we have the highest per capita of fire trucks in the country, and could save $3.2 million by getting rid of one. But after the City did “rolling brownouts” in 2005, the Firefighters Union put Proposition F on the ballot – which the voters passed.

Prop F was only legally enforceable for a year. The Supervisors could institute “rolling brownouts” again – insisting that five years later, our budget situation has gotten worse. And as City Controller Ben Rosenfield noted in his analysis of Mayor Newsom’s budget proposal, we are ignoring Proposition T – the “Treatment on Demand Act” that passed in 2008.

But politically, John Avalos admitted that the Board may not be “willing to stomach” it. Chief Joanna Hayes-White also added that the Firefighters Union have not yet agreed to “give-backs” in their union contract – and that staying in compliance with Prop F would be “essential.” That threat is real. If the firefighters don’t vote to modify their union contract, they will get 4% raises on July 1st – followed by another 2% raise in January.

So What Did the Fire Department Cut Last Year?

After marathon negotiations on the final day of budget deliberations last year, the Fire Department agreed to $6 million in cuts. At the time, it was announced this would be done “without laying off firefighters or rolling brownouts.” I seriously wondered how that was possible.

Now we know, according to Budget Analyst Harvey Rose’s report: (a) $1.6 million was transferred positions to the SFPUC – i.e., passing on personnel costs to another agency; (b) $1.1 million was reduced capital funding for the Auxiliary Water Support Services, and $500,000 involved selling AWSS assets to the SFPUC; (c) $1.3 million was from “surplus revenue and prior savings” from the 2008-2009 Fiscal Year – (why was this not already included in the Fire Department Budget to begin with?); (d) $934,000 was from canceling a capital project; and (e) $235,000 was delegated to the Airport.

In other words, those $6 million in Fire Department cuts were quick fixes that failed to seriously address its top-heavy management. This year, as more cuts are being asked to Health and Human Services, the Fire Department must be asked to make real budget cuts.

Fire Chief Hayes-White Resistant to Cuts

On June 17th, Fire Chief Joanna Hayes-White testified at the Board’s Budget Committee – and appeared resistant to further cuts in her Department. Having sat through many of these hearings, I should note that most Department Heads are very cooperative with what Budget Analyst Harvey Rose recommends – so the Fire Chief’s position was unusual.

Harvey Rose has recommended $3.1 million in cuts – none of whom even touch any of the ideas mentioned in this article. Hayes-White agrees with only $600,000 of them – taking issue with cutting their overtime and premium pay budget, and reforming NERT.

According to the Controller, the Fire Department will under-spend between $800,000 and $900,000 of its premium pay budget – so Rose advises cutting $400,000. As for the overtime budget, Rose said we should cut out $2 million – because the Fire Department has ended this year with a $2 million salary surplus and will save $1 million for this year.

Firefighters who teach NERT classes (Neighborhood Emergency Response Team) get paid overtime for doing so – and Rose says we could save $250,000 by integrating it into regular neighborhood fire station duty. At the Budget Committee, Chief Hayes-White disagreed – saying these firefighters need special training to be good NERT instructors. “Just because you’re a good firefighter does not make you a good teacher,” she said.

Margaret O’Sullivan takes issue with that characterization. “We have many talented people at our firehouses,” she told me, “and they could teach the NERT classes. Let’s make it part of a firefighter’s administrative detail, so they won’t get paid overtime.”


It is outrageous that the Fire Department laid off a ten-year civilian employee whose job had saved millions of dollars. Margaret O’Sullivan is not alone – even the head of the Firefighters Union spoke out against her layoff (although her phone calls to Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Office have gone unanswered.) But it would be a mistake to just re-instate her job, without also making targeted cuts that are needed. Because we’re in a fiscal crisis.

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