Home Part of States Newsroom
Lake Charles lacks firefighters while union lawsuit seeks better pay


Lake Charles lacks firefighters while union lawsuit seeks better pay

Apr 20, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Natalie McLendon
Lake Charles lacks firefighters while union lawsuit seeks better pay
A fire engine is parked outside the Company No. 5 fire station in Lake Charles. (Natalie McLendon/Louisiana Illuminator)

LAKE CHARLES — Staffing at city fire stations is one-third below ideal levels, as a year-old lawsuit over inadequate pay lingers over the department’s efforts to recruit new firefighters. Officials say the safety of residents and businesses aren’t at risk, but firefighters at one station have been forced to relocate while their air-conditioning is not working.  

Jared Chandler, Firefighters Union 0561 liaison, told the Illuminator the optimal number of full-time employees for the department is 182 — a number that city Public Information Officer Katie Harrington confirmed. There are currently 37 LCFD job vacancies, with 34 of them in fire suppression, she said. 

“We are definitely lacking in personnel, as is shown by the number,” Chandler said.

Members of the Firefighters Union Local 561 say the inability to fill those jobs stems, in part, from a complicated compensation structure. The union filed a lawsuit March 3, 2023, in local state court claiming multiple instances when the city paid new firefighters more than those with higher ranks. 

The city implemented a new salary system in January 2023 that increased firefighter pay based on their position and years of service. However, the system doesn’t adhere to state law, according to the lawsuit.

Louisiana law requires firefighters receive 2% annual increases in pay after reaching three years of continuous service for up to 20 years. It also lists the minimum salary increases for specific firefighter ranks.

The lawsuit names Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter, City Administrator John Cardone Jr. and all City Council members as defendants. 

Assistant City Attorney Christopher E. John denied the allegations in his response to the union’s court complaint. Litigation is ongoing, and the next court date isn’t available on record. 

The union’s requests include that the city adopt an equitable pay schedule for firefighters that “maintain(s) the minimum salary differential between ranks,” including 2% annual increases mandated by law. They also ask for an end to lump sum payments and compensation owed for back pay and pension payments.

Lake Charles firefighters have been outspoken before about being paid commensurate with their duties and experience. Their union staged a days-long picket line in front of City Hall in July 2022 over wages as low as $11.17 per hour. By December that year, the City Council had adopted a new pay matrix and amended it in January this year.

Public records the Illuminator obtained indicate that, as of January, the annual salary for an entry-level Lake Charles firefighter is $33,503, or $11.51 per hour for an average 56-hour workweek. The city also pays $600 monthly supplemental pay for all new firefighters during their first year of service. Upon completing the first year, the state pays the $600 monthly supplement.

Lake Charles is actually on par with pay for entry-level firefighters in Baton Rouge, who make a little over $33,200 per year for a 56-hour workweek in a city with nearly three times the population and twice the land area.  

Kenner, which has about 15,000 fewer people than Lake Charles and only a third of the area, pays its firefighters a starting salary of $22,287 for 40 work hours per week, with an hourly wage of less than $9.00. Kenner has faced a similar lawsuit from its firefighters over their compensation.

The fire recruit classification for the New Orleans Fire Department has a starting base salary of $40,896. 

Fire Chief Delton “DC” Carter says the department currently employs 123, not including support staff, and that the department can always use more personnel.

“We have maneuvered staffing so that we have been able to continuously provide the level of service needed for our run area,” Carter said. “Since I have been chief, I have never felt like we have provided inadequate staffing or an inadequate level of service or care for our run area.”

Carter has been in charge of the Lake Charles Fire Department since 2022 and joined its ranks in 1999.

While the Lake Charles firefighters union’s lawsuit alleges inadequate pay, some members say inadequate facilities are also an issue. For at least 56 days, Fire Station 5 in the southeastern section of the city had no functioning air conditioning. District F City Council member Craig Marks said in a Facebook post the city has been working on the HVAC problem at the station since February.

Marks also said Station 5 firefighters were temporarily relocated while the AC issues were being addressed. Sources who wished to remain anonymous out of concern for their job security said a used air conditioner was temporarily placed in Station 5, and its firefighters were relocated to another station. As of last Saturday, no firefighters have been on shift at Station 5 except to clean the facility, the Illuminator determined.

There are eight fire stations in Lake Charles, and the city has a joint services agreement with Calcasieu Parish to occupy two stations in Ward Three that were previously staffed with volunteers.

According to the city’s website, Lake Charles’ Insurance Service Office (ISO) fire rating is currently a Class Two, the next-to-highest rating. Carter said the city has maintained this fire rating for more than 40 years.

“It was not always at a two, but we were eventually able to move up to that,” Chandler said. “Your city’s fire rating directly affects people’s insurance premiums, and there are many factors that determine that rating, one of them being the amount of personnel a department has and its response times.”

Lake Charles covers the cost of city fire protection from its general fund, as opposed to a dedicated tax or fee that some municipalities and parishes collect for their fire departments. Harrington said fire protection costs account for nearly 26% of general fund expenditures, second only to city police (27.8%) and just ahead of public works spending (25%).

Across all of city government, salaries and wages make up 39% of general fund spending.

The city’s current budget for fiscal year 2023-24, which began Oct. 1, lists expenditures totaling $22.8 million for the fire department – a 6% increase from the prior year. Salaries, overtime, retirement contributions and other fringe benefits account for 73% of department spending, down from 86% five years ago.

A fire engine is parked outside the Company No. 5 fire station in Lake Charles.
A fire engine is parked outside the Company No. 5 fire station in Lake Charles. (Natalie McLendon/Louisiana Illuminator)

Regarding recruitment, Chandler said the Lake Charles Fire Department has “a great deal of difficulty” as the lowest-paid department in the area. 

“Even when we do get recruits, a lot of the time we lose them after hiring them to surrounding stations,” Chandler said.

According to employees at the Sulphur Fire Department, their entry-level base salary exceeds $36,500 for a 40-hour workweek. The Lafayette Fire Department indicated recruits can expect to make about $34,600 starting pay for a 50-hour average work week that comes to an hourly wage of $13.30. 

The Carlyss Fire Department, just southwest of Lake Charles, uses a combination of volunteer and career firefighters. Chief Mark Ware Jr. said the starting salary for career firefighters is $42,000 for nearly 40 hours a week, including incentive pay.

Carter advised those who enter the firefighting profession don’t do so for the compensation. 

“A career in the fire service, like any public safety career, is a calling to be answered,” Carter said. “The recruitment challenges we face are similar to those faced nationwide at this time. However, we are seeing an increased interest as of late.”