Salary ladder could rise for some firefighters

  • A firefighter battles an August house fire in Kona Acres. (Laura Ruminski, file/West Hawaii Today)

  • Firefighters watch a 2013 brushfire burn near Lokahi Makai. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today, file photo)

  • Firefighters set up a pool for the helicopter to fill its bucket for water drops on a 2016 brush fire. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today, file photo)
  • Firefighters from four companies battle a house fire in Kona Acres in August. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today, file photo)
  • Hawaii County Fire Department Battalion Chief Darwin Okinaka coordinates search efforts for a missing fisherman in North Kohala in 2016. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today, file)

HILO — The career ladder reaches only so far for Hawaii County firefighters, at least if they don’t want to take a pay cut.

Concerns over a lack of interest from rank-and-file firefighters about rising to battalion chief have Fire Chief Darren Rosario and Acting Human Resources Director Bill Brilhante meeting with Mayor Harry Kim, asking for a classification study to determine whether the position should be moved up a few rungs.

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Rosario said Tuesday he supports a move up on the salary scale for battalion chiefs. That’s why he took it to the mayor, he said.

Brilhante is more cautious, saying a study needs to be undertaken to justify the changes.

“At the end of the day, we want to make sure there’s sufficient evidence,” for an upward move, he said, acknowledging the battalion chief level is “kind of the pinch point in the advancement process.”

Battalion chief is a managerial position one rank above captain. Captains and below are covered by the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association union, while the battalion chief position is excluded from collective bargaining.

Battalion chiefs’ pay ranges from $82,968 to $113,484, depending on seniority and longevity of service, according to 2017 salary charts maintained by the county Department of Human Resources. Captains’ pay is from $79,728-$109,140.

The fire chief makes $130,818 annually, and the deputy fire chief makes $126,894.

Chief and deputy chief salaries are among those being considered by the county Salary Commission at its meetings determining whether to raise top salaries in all departments.

Fourteen current and retired Hawaii County Fire Department battalion chiefs sued the county in 2015, claiming their pay and benefits packages have not kept pace with counterparts and subordinates covered by the collective bargaining agreement.

Battalion chiefs were established as part of a department reorganization in 2005. The lawsuit said the purpose of the battalion chief is “to coordinate the responses of multiple companies of firefighters to emergencies and incidents that cannot be handled by a single company commanded by a captain.”

The lawsuit seeks back pay for lost compensation and adjustment of retirement benefits from the effective date of promotion to battalion chief, as well as unspecified damages, interest and attorney’s fees.

After striking out before the county Merit Appeals Board and in Hilo Circuit Court, the battalion chiefs’ case is now pending in the Intermediate Court of Appeals.

Their argument was bolstered by a recent advertisement attempting to fill two vacant positions in the department. Only two candidates applied, and only one was hired, Brilhante said.

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung asked for an update Tuesday, asking if the battalion chiefs’ pay could be raised two classifications upward, which would raise their range to $89,700 to $122,748.

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He said it’s important to give firefighters opportunities for advancement in order to develop managers from within the ranks.

“I just don’t look at it as being very fair,” Chung said. “Does the current system encourage or discourage fire captains to aspire to the position of battalion chief? … We want people to aspire to that highest job.”

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