Kern County Fire Chief Dennis Thompson released data Wednesday that he said supports using overtime to fight major wildland fires and fill vacation and sick-day shifts. He held a news conference in response to requests by The Californian for names and specific incomes of all Kern County Fire Department employees. The information was released last week. In total, all county Fire Department employees earned $53.1 million in 2006 — $15.87 million of which was overtime pay. Sworn firefighters, from apprentices to pilots to Thompson himself, earned $47.19 million in 2005, of which $14.16 million was overtime pay. The highest paid county Fire Department employee for the last three years made $103,292 in overtime in 2006. But Thompson argued that paying that person overtime is still better than hiring new employees to fill an empty job or fight a major wildland fire. “They spend a significant amount of time working for that additional pay,” Thompson said. “In the process they put their lives on the line.” Thompson outlined two primary ways firefighters earn overtime pay. One is “constant staffing,” where off-duty firefighters are regularly called in on their days off to work for people who are on vacation, sick or otherwise can’t work. In the 2006-2007 fiscal year, the county spent $9.26 million to fill those shifts. Thompson said filling a missing shift costs 1.57 times the pay of the employee who works the overtime — because the employee is only paid for his or her time and a few required federal benefits. Hiring a new employee to cover that shift would cost 2.17 times the new employee’s pay because he or she would have to be paid a full benefits package. Michael Turnipseed of the Kern County Taxpayers Association said he understands how a new full-time employee can cost more than an existing one on an overtime shift. He supports the county looking for the most cost-effective way to fund the work it does. But he said the Kern County Fire Department needs to make sure its employees aren’t putting too much taxpayer money into one person’s pocket. “In this community, a firefighter is considered to be a very good job,” Turnipseed said. The whole community and its economy benefit when a new firefighter job is created. Turnipseed said he begins to worry when “an employee is allowed to make 150 (percent of) his salary in overtime.” County firefighters also earn overtime, Thompson said, by responding to emergencies — including everything from local wildland fires to major incidents like the Zaca fire to national emergencies like Hurricane Katrina. In most cases, Thompson said, the county is paid back 100 percent of the costs of sending firefighters into emergency situations. And, he said, the county receives an additional administrative fee that it uses to replace old equipment. Turnipseed said he sees little problem with the county sending its firefighters out to serve other communities in emergencies because Kern County gets paid back. “I don’t have a problem with that,” he said.