On the Saturday after Independence Day, about half of the 180 Anne Arundel County firefighters and paramedics scheduled to work took the day off.
The Fire Department approved all 88 leave requests and used overtime to pay for enough workers to reach its minimum staffing of 128 uniformed employees.
At yesterday's meeting of a panel assembled to study the Fire Department's rising overtime expenses, which topped $7.2 million last fiscal year, Chief Roger C. Simonds used July 5 as an example of how various kinds of leave -- including vacations scheduled a year in advance and last-minute sick days -- factor into the department's use of overtime.
The example raised the eyebrows of some panel members.
"What's wrong with the system that [so much] of the staff could be off at once?" asked panel member Henry Farrell, a county budget analyst.
Panel chairman Ronald McGuirk asked fire officials to gather data and report back on why there were so many absences July 5. He said the committee could use that day as a worst-case example as it delves into the Fire Department's personnel structure and tries to determine whether the county should hire more firefighters.
County Executive Janet S. Owens appointed the eight-person panel last month, after The Sun reported that the Anne Arundel department exceeded its overtime account by nearly $1 million last fiscal year and routinely spends millions more than counterparts in neighboring counties do.
At its first meeting last week, panel members focused on the chief's decision to use overtime funds to pay a crew of firefighters to help renovate an old warehouse for department use. Simonds used overtime after being denied capital funding for the project.
The Fire Department says it spent about $200,000 on the project, including $130,000 for overtime. At the request of the County Council, the county auditor is examining that figure and other aspects of overtime spending.
Yesterday, the panel broadened its scope, asking Budget Officer John Hammond about the department's spending history and Personnel Officer Mark Atkisson about the contract with the Anne Arundel County Professional Fire Fighters union.
Hammond provided members with information on Fire Department spending for the past 19 years, noting that the agency's budget more than tripled in that time, to $66.7 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30.
In overtime and special pay, which consists of bonuses given to high-level fire officials who work extra shifts, the Fire Department's spending jumped from about $4.6 million in 1998 to close to $8 million last year. Put another way, the amount the department pays for extra work rose from less than $8,000 per employee in fiscal 1998 to more than $12,000 per employee last fiscal year.
In trying to provide context for the overall cost of public safety, Hammond told the panel that the county spends about $20,000 an hour on police, fire and jail services.
"It's a very sobering number," Hammond said.
Later, Atkisson explained to the panel how the Fire Department's standards for paying overtime differ from the Fair Labor Act's standards.
Employees covered by the federal law are paid time and a half for hours worked beyond 40 hours a week. County firefighters are paid time and a half for any shift they work outside their usual schedules, even if they work an extra day during a week when they are on vacation during their usual shifts.
Panel member Joseph Novotny, a former county auditor, asked Simonds whether the Fire Department ever turns to volunteer firefighters to fill vacant shifts instead of paying career firefighters overtime.
A memorandum of agreement in the union's contract stipulates that full-time career firefighters must be offered overtime before anyone else.
In the past, the department paid volunteers about $100 per shift to cover for absent career firefighters. That practice was discontinued, though no one at the meeting could recall when.
When pressed, Simonds acknowledged that the union's contract does not prohibit him from asking volunteer firefighters to fill shifts if no career firefighters want the extra hours.
"It used to happen," Novotny said. "And it can happen again."
The panel will meet again Oct. 2.
Sun staff writer Ryan Davis contributed to this article.