Five retiring Laguna Beach firefighters set the stage for promotions for six members of the staff and five new hires, who emerged from a field of a thousand applicants. The five new firefighters who made the cut were sworn in this past Monday, given their turnout gear and are half way through a two-week orientation.
Jeff White, Sean Daugherty, Jereme Lazar and Zack De John will work as firefighter/emergency medical technicians while Patrick Cary will join the city’s 17 existing firefighter/paramedics. They will spend approximately a month learning Laguna Beach specific firefighting and rescue techniques before they are given a crew assignment, the city manager’s report said. They are replacing recent retirees Capts. Bob Scrugs and Steve Nelson, engineer Matt Drever, firefighter Tom Burdick, and Capt. Steen Jensen, who will retire this month.
Frank Buckner, Eric Lether and John Kuzmic will be promoted to captain, while Adam Schulenberg, Scott Hammond, and Alex Pacheco will be promoted to engineer/paramedic. A ceremony will take place at City Hall on Nov. 14.
Buckner and Lether, both engineer/paramedics, have already been working as acting captains, meaning they fill that role when a captain is off duty.
“I’ve never seen this big of a change in my 15 years,” said Buckner, referring to the five hires and six promotions in a department of 40 firefighters. Most departments county-wide have made fewer hires than normal in the last three years due to economic constraints, a union spokesman said.
Compared to the existing staff, though, the new hires will receive a thinner benefit package, due to a recently renegotiated contract
where new firefighters will have to contribute to their retirement savings. Retirement benefits are paid once a firefighter reaches 50 years of age, at 3% of their original salary for every year of service, so someone with 20 years of service would receive 60 percent of their full pay.
City Manager John Pietig said retirement expenses for public safety employees increased 5% last year due to losses sustained by the state Public Employees Retirement System, and believes Laguna Beach firefighters compensation is still in the top third county-wide.
Firefighters’ union spokesman John Lata said Laguna’s overall compensation is in the middle of the county-wide pack, because while paid more, it’s firefighters receive less in incentives for special training in areas such as hazardous materials or urban search and rescue.
New firefighters expect paychecks of between $4,873-$6,861 per month, depending on education, certifications, experience and performance.
One of the departing retirees, Burdick, was reached waiting to board a plane to Hawaii. “I’m going to be into double overhead waves tomorrow,” said the 21-year firefighter, who will spend a month on Oahu’s North Shore with his wife Michelle and dog Deeogi.
Burdick is happy two of the new hires, De John, 22, of Lake Forest, and White, 46, of Dana Point, already worked as reserve firefighters for Laguna. All the new hires have experience working in some fire or emergency medical services capacity.
White, the oldest of the new hires, said he was impressed by how much the 15 firefighters that live in his neighborhood love their jobs. “One day one of them said, ‘Why don’t you do it,’” he quipped.
Scrugs, a retiring captain, plans to spend time with his wife, who battled life-threatening renal failure in 2010 and has since made a full recovery. He said things have changed since he started 31 years ago.
“When I got hired there were WWII and Vietnam guys there. They were not stricter, but had a regimen that we wouldn’t go through today because I think we’d be sued,” he said, adding, “When I went through I had to prove myself. It was like very day could be my last day. Now they’re going to be kind of nurtured.”
His advice to the new guys: “Tough it out because you get home at the end of the day and say, ‘Somebody called me in crisis and I showed up.’ I’ve been fulfilled.”
Although the new hires are already trained in firefighting, orientation will show them the particulars of firefighting in Laguna Beach, like dealing with both urban and wild land fires. After four 24-hour shifts shadowing a firefighter, they will be on active duty. One year of probation with continuous testing follows.
Many fire departments staff their engines with four firefighters. Because Laguna Beach runs its with just three, Division Chief Dan Stefano said, “there is a lot of responsibility and we want to be sure they are prepared for that.”
Ted Reckas is a former Indy staffer.