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Watchdog Group Questions Firefighter Overtime Pay

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SACRAMENTO --

A watchdog group is raising concerns about California firefighter salaries, specifically when it comes to overtime pay for some officials.

The group Transparent California compiled a list of some of the highest overtime amounts paid out to fire captains across the state for the 2014 fiscal year, some of whom are a part of Sacramento Metro Fire.

As wildfires burned across hundreds of thousands of acres, firefighters from across California answered the call, often racking up long overtime hours.

But how much overtime is too much?

"I can't disagree, I won't disagree that those numbers are too high,” said Chris Holbrook, Sacramento Metro Fire Deputy Chief.

Holbrook’s talking about overtime pay, which in 2014 tripled salaries for dozens of fire captains statewide.

Including some in Sacramento, two who make $93,000 and $98,000 a year, earned $155,000 and $180,00 more in overtime alone.

"There's a balancing act. Some of that is necessary. Definitely people have been critical about how the contracts, where it's going beyond, what's needed for safety,” said Robert Fellner, who researches salary data for the watchdog agency Transparent  California.

He says the 2014 overtime pay seems excessive.

Holbrook acknowledged those ballooning costs were an issue, and says Sacramento Metro Fire has taken steps to address it. The agency has hired more staff, cutting back on time-and-a-half hours. Holbrook says overtime costs are already down 36 percent for 2015.

"Numbers, they don't just turn around with the flip of a switch, but we are seeing true savings at this point,” Holbrook said.

Some overtime for firefighters is unavoidable. In 2014, mid-drought, wildfires covered 630,000 acres of California land.

A Sacramento area fire union spokesman said over the phone some firefighters had to work 100 hours or more per shift to maintain the staffing minimum required for big fires.

He added some agencies' staff levels remain low from the recession.

"It's the rare case, but there are individuals who have in the past worked an entire year’s worth of time in an overtime capacity,” Holbrook said.

They've earned the money, but with so many hours for such a taxing job, the question becomes: How much overtime is unsafe?