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Volatility reigns at Sparks Fire Department

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New Chief Out Over Felony Charges as Management, Union Feud

By Mark Maynard

Tucked between the busy boulevard of Pyramid Way and a strip of downtown bars and restaurants is Sparks Memorial Park. Sitting atop concrete steps is a life-sized statue of a firefighter, helmet in hand, his head downturned in a pose of despair. A set of metallic footprints, soot black against the concrete surface, trails in from the street.

Nearby is a plaque commemorating the two Sparks firefighters who have died in the line of duty. Frank B. Hobson died in 1948 on a mutual aid call in Reno during the Lake Street disaster, and Captain Fred Steiner Sr., who founded the department in 1905, died at his home in 1953 while getting into his car to respond to a fire.

The Sparks Fire Department Memorial plaque. Image: Mark Maynard
The Sparks Fire Department Memorial plaque. Image: Mark Maynard

Steiner would hardly recognize the department he founded over a century ago. According to its history page, the Sparks Fire Department was wholly staffed with volunteers until 1917 when the job was transformed into a paid career. In the 117 years as a department, there have been thirteen chiefs. 

In 2022, two fire chiefs have already resigned the top post, one after a vote of no confidence from the firefighter’s union, and the second after felony drug charges surfaced less than a week after his tenure began. 

The leadership vacuum is coupled with an ongoing and contentious feud between the city of Sparks and its firefighters’ union over a depletion of personnel since 2005, and an associated strain on the workforce. That year, the department had 86 qualified firefighters in its employ. By 2017, that number had been reduced to 69 firefighters, and today the number stands at 67, a decrease of 22%. During that time period, the population of the city increased by 34%.

The job

The modern reality of firefighting is more often a slow burn of tedious hours, frequent exposure to carcinogens, traumatic interactions, and short-staffing leading to unplanned mandatory shifts that can strain marriages and deprive firefighters of much-needed sleep. 

The popular mythos of firefighting is that of a hero willing to rush into a burning building in order to save others, a figure reinforced in film and television, and the images from Manhattan on 9/11 seared into the memories of a nation. In reality, most firefighters – including those who leave the profession, die prematurely of cancer or heart disease, or die by suicide – will never have their names on any firefighters’ memorial. 

Despite the risks, the job holds great appeal for a certain kind of person drawn to the career by innate compassion. 

“This is the work that calls them,” said Dr. Steve Nicholas, a clinician who works with Truckee Meadows Fire and Rescue. “I do think that fire service, for example, is more vocational than it is employment.”

“I had an altruistic need to take care of people,” said Jarrod Stewart, a Sparks firefighter and vice president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1265. For many, there is also a strong sense of tradition. Stewart is a third-generation public safety employee – his grandfather and father were both in law enforcement. “I wanted to do something honorable, like they did, and chose firefighting because of my interest in science,” he added

Sparks Fire Department headquarters. Image: Mark Maynard
Sparks Fire Department headquarters. Image: Mark Maynard

Economic pressures on staffing across the region

The Great Recession of 2008 decimated Truckee Meadows’ public service sector. Budgets were slashed and critical employees laid off. As municipalities slowly climbed out of the financial abyss, their limited tax base was buoyed by the recovery of home prices, budgets again increased for police and other services – though the replenishment of fire departments did not keep pace. 

In 2012, the Reno Fire Department and Washoe County (represented by Truckee Meadows Fire and Rescue) entered into a contentious and costly de-consolidation of regional fire services, commonly referred to as the “fire divorce.” In 2015 the two departments, as well as the Sparks Fire Department, reached an automatic aid agreement in which the nearest engine is dispatched to an emergency call from any of the three departments. A private non-profit agency – the Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority (REMSA) – provides all ground ambulance services in Washoe County with the exception of Gerlach and Incline Village. 

The other two neighboring departments recovered from the recession and the chaotic deconsolidation that affected positions across the region. Reno Fire increased its full-time equivalent (FTE) of employees by 4.7% over five years from 2017-2021, according to the city budget, while the other regional department, Truckee Meadows Fire and Rescue, which serves a much larger geographic area, has increased its FTE by 58% since 2017. Sparks is the only local department that has not recovered positions since 2007.

All of the local emergency service agencies are being impacted by recruiting and staffing challenges. But in Sparks, the mental and physical strain of overworked firefighters is exacerbated by an ongoing crisis of leadership, and a contentious relationship between city management and the firefighters’ union. 

Sparks City Hall. Image: Mark Maynard
Sparks City Hall. Image: Mark Maynard

A crisis in Sparks

“I don’t know if anyone has ever let a department get to this level,” said Stewart. The last eight months have been marked by a volatile chain of events at the very top of the agency.

In April, chief Jim Reid resigned after a vote of no confidence from the local fire union. The city retained the public-sector executive search firm of Ralph Andersen and Associates to find a new chief, and on Sept. 14, Sparks announced six finalists including one internal candidate, Kevin Jakubos, a Sparks battalion chief.

After a final interview process conducted by the city, Sparks City Manager Neil Krutz offered the job to Walt White, fire chief of the Amador Fire Protection District. According to Krutz, White initially accepted the position and then backed out for personal reasons. 

On Nov. 28, Krutz then offered the position to Mark Lawson, who was originally from Sparks and had worked over 32 years at CalFire in central California. In a video posted on the Sparks YouTube Channel on Nov. 30, Krutz announced that Lawson had started the job the previous day, and joked, “I’m thankful to report that he came back for day two today.” 

“Certainly the working relationship between our local fire union, IAFF local 1265, and the city management is broken right now,” said Krutz on Nov. 23. “I’m absolutely looking forward for Chief Lawson to help us repair that and move forward. And I’m confident that we’ll be able to.”

Mark Lawson was on the job as Chief of Sparks Fire Department for about a week before he was out with “serious criminal charges” forthcoming. Image: City of Sparks

Lawson was on the job for less than a week when, on Dec.5, Krutz posted a video announcing that the city had learned about serious criminal charges pending against the new chief. According to the video, Krutz asked for and received Lawson’s resignation. 

On Dec. 9, Lawson was charged in Sparks Justice Court with four felony drug crimes dating back to 2020 and 2021: 

  • Conspiracy to violate the Uniform Controlled Substance Act, first offense
  • Possession of a Schedule III, IV or V controlled substance of 28 grams or more, but less than 200 grams
  • Possession of a Schedule III, IV or V controlled substance less than 28 grams, first or second offense
  • Possession, with intent sell, schedule III, IV or V controlled substance, first or second offense 

Lawson is scheduled to be arraigned on Jan. 31. Krutz declined to comment further on the matter. 

On Dec. 21, Lawson’s attorneys sent a letter to the city of Sparks contesting Krutz’s assertion that their client resigned and demanding that he be reinstated as fire chief. 

Prior to Lawson’s hiring, the union recommended the city hire from outside the department, but its members were not involved in the hiring beyond a city-hosted “speed dating” event where union leaders, elected officials, and city department heads met the candidates.

“They basically asked us to support whoever they chose as the new chief, yet did not allow us to be part of the interview process,” Stewart said. He added that city officials did allow union representatives to spend five minutes with each candidate at a meet-and-greet.

“The fire union was involved, but they were not part of the decision on who to hire,” said Krutz. “They got to meet everybody, and they got to provide some input. But at the end of the day, I made the decision.” He said this is the typical hiring process for a city department head in Sparks. 

Riding the “mando train”

Leadership drama isn’t the only source of ongoing strife in the Sparks Fire Department. To meet the increased volume of calls driven by a growing population, fire departments sometimes cover shifts using a mandatory overtime process. This means that firefighters are “force-hired” into an additional 24-hour work period immediately following their scheduled 24-hour shift. Per their contract, firefighters who are force-hired cannot decline regardless of their physical or mental state at the end of a scheduled shift. 

REMSA does not require that its employees do any mandatory overtime, though they can be held over for up to two hours at the end of a shift if they are on an active call. The agency recently reduced regular shifts by two hours without an associated cut in pay. 

“We believe that it is safer for our team members to be on shift in a busy EMS environment for 10 hours versus 12 hours,” said Adam Heinz, executive director of integrated healthcare for REMSA. “It’s not necessarily about money – it’s about time off, the ability to enjoy with their family, get off, go home, have dinner, rest, recuperate for the next shift that you have to do.” 

Stewart raised concerns with Sparks city management that the reliance on forced hires is “putting us at physical and mental risk, and is putting the public at risk.” 

Pinehaven Fire in Reno, Nevada on Nov. 17, 2020. Image: Trevor Bexon / This Is Reno.
Sparks Fire Department trucks respond to the Pinehaven Fire in Reno, Nevada on Nov. 17, 2020. Image: Trevor Bexon / This Is Reno.

A records request revealed that the number of mandatory overtime shifts required of Sparks firefighters has been increasing over the last five years. The data, an image of the overtime hours tracking database received from the city, was reported through Sept. 30, 2022. 

These additional hours can take a toll on firefighters, and can also affect public safety. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation can lead to a condition akin to alcohol impairment, depending on how many hours one has gone without sleep. 

Stewart expressed concerns about overworked firefighters on Oct. 13. 

“We had three people ordered to work today for 48 hours more that didn’t hit the rack last night,” he said, adding that the lack of sleep puts both the firefighters and the general public they serve at risk. 

In April, the union filed a complaint with the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleging safety and health hazards, including the staffing of apparatus with three-person crews, longer-than-acceptable response times, and inadequate or improperly operating equipment. While the City of Sparks asked that the complaint be dismissed, it was confirmed in a Department of Industrial Relations Advisory Council meeting on Oct. 17 that the matter is now an active investigation. 

“Over the course of the last year, Sparks Firefighters collectively worked over 11,000 hours of forced overtime,” reads a letter filed by the union as part of the complaint. “Workers’ Compensation injuries have increased exponentially since this decline in working conditions began in 2007. The city has chosen to operate their public safety agency with zero elasticity in the system, subsequently placing the burden of 100+ hour weeks, lack of sleep, and physical and mental stress on members of Local 1265.”

Dr. Nicholas explained unexpected overtime shifts can affect firefighters personally and professionally. He described first responders as “warrior servants” who “don’t blink in the face of adversity.” He said the back-to-back forced hire shifts are commonly referred to as “the mando train.” 

“When somebody is so strongly identified with service, and then you mandatory-shift them, over and over and over – because institutionally, organizationally they’re just not flush with staffing and with employees – then you’re going to hurt people in their personal worlds,” said Nicholas.

The over-stretching of first responders can lead to short-term exhaustion, but it can also eventually affect safety and performance.

“The accumulation of the stimuli and stressors at some point will not be productive, and in fact it will be potentially destructive,” said Nicholas. “Somebody who really values the altruistic traits of their profession, that’s a special breed, and that special breed wants to work.” 

Nicholas made clear that this can create an overidentification with the job where the role of firefighter becomes all-encompassing, and this can lead to struggles with a life off-duty, both for firefighters and their families and friends. 

Peer-support resources such as department-embedded chaplains who understand firefighting culture can help first responders cope with on- and off-the-job stress. 

“Chaplaincy and peer support go hand-in-hand,” said Chaz Blackburn, community service coordinator for the Great Basin Chaplain Corps. 

Great Basin has official programs in the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, the Reno Fire Department – which has a dedicated dispatch line for its chaplains – and the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District. The Sparks Fire Department is the only department in the region that doesn’t have a chaplaincy program. 

Running smaller crews

Both the Sparks Fire Department and Truckee Meadows Fire and Rescue have the option to meet their shift needs by running three-person crews on their engines. By comparison, the Reno Fire Department firefighters’ union negotiated into its collective bargaining agreement that the department can only run four-person crews in order to meet the Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard that firefighters maintain a “two in/two out” practice. The standard stipulates that when two firefighters enter an “Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) atmosphere,” two others remain outside in visual and verbal contact with them. 

The “two in/two out” standard is also a policy in the official code of the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA). According to Lonnie Inzer, deputy director of the Pikes Peak Regional Office of Emergency Management in Colorado, departments try to adhere to these standards, but those with “jurisdictional authority” can run smaller crews to provide the best and safest service for both firefighters and the public. Inzer said options include: riding with fewer personnel, spreading personnel and stations further apart, and ensuring that more units respond to a call. 

Krutz said he felt the Sparks Fire Department had sufficient staffing. He said the city currently has three firefighter vacancies and that they are working to get those filled as quickly as they can.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, “we certainly have focused more of our investment in our police department than any other department in our city,” said Krutz. He said this funding is based on demands for service as compared to all other departments in the city. 

Sparks City Manager Neil Krutz. Image: City of Sparks

“You’re seeing more broadly, society is getting more violent than it was in the past,” Krutz added. “Our need to keep the community safe in terms of the services our police department provides have consistently risen to the top of the needs list on a frequent basis.”

When asked if the call volume for the fire department has risen during that time period because of increasing violence, Krutz said that the call volume has been relatively flat over the past six years. The most recently available data from the Sparks Police also shows little change from 2016-2020 with the exception of a marked increase in reported rapes. 

The FBI’s Crime Data Explorer explained the bureau changed the definition of rape in 2013 to more accurately define the crime and statistics for that offense increased nationwide since the change. According to the state’s crime statistics, Nevada has seen a five-year trend of decreasing violent crime while Sparks had a downward trend from 2018 until an increase of 6.4% from 2020 to 2021, the last reported year. 

In 2016, the City of Sparks released “Ignite Sparks,” a comprehensive plan guiding the city up to the year 2030. Included was a “deep dive” survey of over 1,600 residents. When asked if the city should add one or more fire stations to maintain a six-minute average response time, over 84% responded it should. When asked if additional locations for the public to access the police department should be provided, just over 60% said yes. 

While the broad public input and the call numbers suggest that the city could benefit from increased hiring for the fire department, city budgets reaffirm Krutz’s assertion that the police department has consistently seen more funding for years. 

Breaking point

Regarding the increasing volume of force-hired shifts since 2008, Krutz said, “We’re all human, we all have a breaking point, and we want to take care of our employees.” He added that he thinks that with 10 recent hires brought on last summer being trained and put on-the-line, “we have started to see a reduction in the amount of mandatory overtime.”

Krutz confirmed those hires primarily backfilled open positions created through retirement and other attrition, meaning that there has not been a net gain of firefighters. “At this point we’re matching what’s going on,” he said. Under the current three-person crew policy, Sparks would need nine additional firefighters to open a new station in addition to three long-open positions the city has yet to fill. 

“We’ve been carrying that three for a while now as we continue to try to get people on board,” said Krutz.

While retirement is viable for those with longevity, options are limited for mid-career firefighters who find themselves in a department in disarray. 

Stewart said many feel tied to the job by “golden handcuffs”: Nevada retirement benefits are not transferable to other states, and going to another fire department – known as a lateral transfer – means starting over. “You lose your longevity, you lose your sick leave,” said Stewart. Not only would he take a large pay cut if he changed employers, but “I’d have to go to an academy and completely start over.”

“You know the job is hard enough, much less fighting the bureaucracy nonsense that we do every day.”

Despite this, Stewart says others are considering applying elsewhere. He said he recently spoke to a captain who has been at the department for almost two decades, “and he’s thinking of taking a pay cut to go to Reno, just to get out of Sparks.”

The city manager acknowledges that the ties between the city and its fire department are strained. 

“I am certainly worried about the relationship issues playing out in the press, casting a negative light on the city and its fire service,” said Krutz. “I hope we can move past it and focus on moving forward.”

Stewart said he hopes that a new chief will be able to heal the rift between the union and city management. 

“We needed somebody from the outside to come in and look at the situation and not have a personal dog in the fight,” he said. “Just look at things and say, ‘how can we move this department moving forward?’” 

The city has yet to comment on plans to begin another search for a fire chief. 

Meanwhile, the union is seeking answers from the city as to why the fire department staffing has not been restored to pre-recession levels, said Stewart. “What happens when one of us does die, when it’s not a safe atmosphere?”

Still on the job

Certainly, the stresses of the long shift work and frequent calls can feel overwhelming for firefighters. “You know the job is hard enough, much less fighting the bureaucracy nonsense that we do every day,” said Stewart. “The last few weeks have been embarrassing for us.” 

However, there is still much that appeals about being an emergency responder, even at a department in turmoil.

“We take pride in how we take care of the public,” said Stewart. He said there is a visceral, emotional sense of caring for somebody, like the elderly man he helped pick up off of the floor recently. “You could tell he was lonely and he just wanted to talk,” said Stewart. 

“When somebody thanks us for taking care of them, that means that the sacrifice to our mental health, our physical health, our families, means something to somebody; that’s the payoff.”

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