Panel to urge shorter shifts for paramedics

24-hour duty problematic, review commission says

`Something we should look at'

Fire chief opposes move to one per ambulance

Anne Arundel

November 06, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Members of the committee studying Anne Arundel County's Fire Department said yesterday that they will push to end 24-hour workdays for paramedics, who have complained that they are run ragged - especially when they are forced to work overtime.

"I think something has got to be done," said Joseph Novotny, a former county auditor and a member of the eight-member committee that is largely looking for ways to reduce the department's skyrocketing overtime costs.

The committee also questioned yesterday whether Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds is relying enough on volunteers and whether the county should reduce firefighters' vacation time. And it began to inquire about one of the chief's most strongly held beliefs: that two paramedics ride in each ambulance, as opposed to one paramedic and a qualified firefighter.

"That's something we should look at," said member Henry Farrell, a county budget analyst.

County Executive Janet S. Owens created the panel in August after the department came under scrutiny for spending $7.2 million on overtime last year. That's more than Simonds budgeted and millions of dollars more than some neighboring counties spent. Simonds used some of the overtime money to complete an unauthorized capital project.

In their fifth meeting, the committee members began to reveal some of their likely suggestions. Besides financial concerns, some expressed worries about paramedics' ability to work tiring 24-hour shifts. Eliminating those shifts would likely force firefighters to change their shift schedules also, they said.

Paramedics are typically the busiest members of the department because about 70 percent of calls are for medical emergencies. The problem is magnified, committee members said, because paramedics commonly are required to stay for a second 24-hour shift so the department can meet its self-imposed staffing level.

"There's a liability [issue] we haven't even touched," said Dr. Richard L. Alcorta, medical director of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.

Firefighters work 24-hour shifts and then have 48 hours off. Simonds said he believes that Arundel paramedics should have switched to a combination of 10- and 14-hour shifts - as Baltimore County's did - as far back as 25 years ago. "That's how long ago we needed to make that transition," he said.

The committee members who recently met with volunteer firefighters questioned Simonds about his use of volunteers, many of whom have said they are underutilized. Simonds responded by saying that he has tried to save by relying on entirely on volunteers to fill some fire stations at night and on the weekends. But each time, he said, the volunteers declined.

"We're into a `He said, she said,'" said panel member Skip Bullen, senior adviser to Owens.

The committee also must decide whether it will recommend a change in the system by which firefighters accumulate and use vacation time.

Panel member Mark Atkisson, the county's personnel officer, said the current format is not on par with that of other county employees. Fixing the problem would result in annual overtime savings of $1 million, he said.

After the change, firefighters who receive 10 vacation shifts a year would get less than 8 1/2 vacation shifts per year. The president of the county's firefighters union, Keith W. Wright, said he would expect the county to negotiate the issue.

Simonds spoke little about that subject, but when the committee turned to how many paramedics should ride an ambulance, he took a firm stand.

Some panel members said they wonder if the department could save money and provide better service if it put one paramedic on each ambulance, allowing the department to move paramedics into stations that don't have them and reduce the number of those forced to work consecutive shifts.

Simonds disagreed with the idea. "We've set the benchmark for everybody else in the state to follow," he said. "I feel very strongly."

Novotny also questioned whether the department should eliminate a recently formed paramedic quality assurance team in order to hire more paramedics.

Baltimore and Howard counties use one paramedic per ambulance, though several other local departments use two, Simonds said. Member George F. Bachman asked Simonds why - if a previous chief wanted to move to one paramedic per ambulance - the county uses two.

"He's no longer the fire chief," Simonds said, "and I am."

Sun staff writer Julie Bykowicz contributed to this report.

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