All 23 of the Spokane Valley Fire Department’s lieutenants have been promoted to captain.
Staffing levels remain the same because, under a plan to improve managerial skills, lieutenants are now as obsolete as a bucket brigade.
A reorganization that took effect Jan. 1 established a five-step pay scale for captains. To advance, captains must attend classes, obtain certifications and gain experience in prescribed areas.
The goal is to develop officers qualified to become battalion chiefs or even chief of the department, according to Assistant Fire Chief Larry Rider.
He said educational standards also have been increased for senior officers, and more upper-echelon changes are planned.
“We think it’s a trend-setting program,” Rider said. “We’ve watched for years, trying to get people energized about education and haven’t found the tool.”
Already this year, Rider said, he’s seen more interest in education than in his previous 28 years with the department.
The incentive is provided by five pay grades that range from 116 percent to 129 percent of a top-level firefighter’s pay. This year, an entry level captain is paid $78,272 while a fifth-level captain gets $87,044.
Including all five pay grades in one rank eliminates the need for civil service testing to move from one step to another, Rider said.
Under rule changes the department’s Civil Service Commission addressed Tuesday, categories for lieutenants and training officers were eliminated. Civil service tests for those positions, which Rider said can cost $10,000 to $20,000 each, will no longer be needed.
However, the new pay scale is expected to increase the department’s costs.
“I don’t think it’s a very large amount,” Rider said, but officials so far are “pretty blind” about how many officers may earn promotions.
No step increase has been awarded so far this year, he said.
The newly created captains received only the 2.9 percent cost-of-living raise that other union employees received this year. Otherwise, the new entry-level captain’s pay is the old lieutenant’s pay.
Similarly, the old one-size-fits-all captain’s pay is the new fifth-level captain’s pay. All 10 of last year’s regular captains are now “captain fives,” Rider said.
Training officers now will be fourth-level captains who are chosen by a panel composed of a fire commissioner, one of the senior chiefs and a union representative.
First- or second-level captains could become training officers and vault directly to level four, but they would revert to their former pay grades if they ceased to be training officers.
In the past, lieutenants typically were in charge of engine companies and captains were in charge of stations. Even though they’re all captains now, “our paramilitary structure has not changed,” Rider said.
Lines of authority are determined by assigned duties, Rider said. A station captain is still in charge of the station, and a training captain has the last word on training.
At a fire scene, the first-arriving officer becomes the incident commander. A senior officer who arrives later has always been authorized to take over, but officers typically work out a division of labor as circumstances warrant, Rider said.
“I don’t think you’ll see a ‘captain five’ come to a scene and take command from a ‘captain three,’ ” he said. “There’s a natural sequencing to things. We’ve never had a problem with it.”
The Spokane Valley Fire Department has 169 employees, organized in three shifts and three divisions.
Each division – fire prevention, emergency medical service and training – is headed by a division chief; each shift, by a battalion chief. Those officers answer to two assistant chiefs and the fire chief, although one of the assistant chief positions is vacant.