Arundel chief aims to hire more firefighters

He says 180 new positions would curb overtime costs

November 20, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds urged yesterday a committee studying his department's rising overtime tab to recommend adding as many as 180 firefighters to the 630-member department.

"It would give us a lot of vitality that we don't have today," the chief said.

Simonds announced his plan after weeks of committee meetings during which some county officials have questioned many of the department's longstanding policies and have hinted that they may recommend major reforms.

Although Simonds' plan would enable him to put an additional person on every piece of fire equipment and double the number of medical units in the county, it comes with a $10.5 million price tag in the first year alone.

The county is projecting a nearly $7 million shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1, and a spokesman for County Executive Janet S. Owens said it is unlikely the county could spend that kind of money.

Yesterday, the committee's seventh meeting, was the first time Simonds gave any indication of what he would like the committee to recommend.

Owens appointed the eight-person committee in August after the department's overtime spending reached a record $7.2 million last fiscal year. Anne Arundel spends millions more on fire overtime than other Baltimore-area counties. Simonds has drawn criticism for paying overtime to a crew of firefighters and a supervisor for a year to renovate a warehouse.

Fire officials have said the larger issue is inadequate staffing, which they say forces them to pay millions of dollars in overtime every year.

The department spokesman, Division Chief John M. Scholz, said Simonds devised a plan to reduce overtime spending in response to the committee's interest in switching the department from its current 24-hour schedule to 10- and 14-hour shifts. The chief said such a change would cost about $7.6 million a year.

"The chief's just saying, `Hey, if you're going to spend $7 million, let's spend it in this way," Scholz said after the meeting.

Although Simonds has not provided committee members - or the county executive - with written details of his plan, he told committee members he wants to add 39 firefighters to each shift, increasing the number of firefighters on each piece of fire equipment from two to three and the number of medical units available in the county from 15 to 29.

For each position it adds, the department said it must hire about five people.

Expanding the department by nearly 30 percent would narrow the gap between current staffing levels and the National Fire Protection Association's recommendation that four firefighters ride each piece of equipment, Simonds said.

Committee member Mark Atkisson said he had no reaction to Simonds' plan because he was awaiting more information about its cost and how it could be carried out.

"I'm looking forward to learning more," he said after the meeting.

As Simonds spoke individually to the committee members during the informal meeting yesterday at the training grounds in Millersville, firefighters put on a demonstration aimed at supporting the case for more firefighters.

Twice, firefighters extinguished a controlled fire at a mock single-family home. The first time, two firefighters rode each piece of equipment, which Simonds said is a typical response in Anne Arundel. The second time, four firefighters rode each piece, which falls in line with the response recommended by the NFPA.

The difference: By doubling the number of firefighters at the scene, the fire was brought under control in half the time.

And twice, firefighters and paramedics tried to resuscitate a dummy representing a 44-year-old man who had gone into full cardiac arrest. First, one paramedic and one emergency medical technician administered advanced life support. Next, two paramedics repeated the exercise.

The difference: With two fully trained paramedics instead of one, the dummy's "heartbeat" was restored about 10 minutes faster.

Committee members - six of the eight attended - said they found the scenarios to be helpful.

"We saw the things we were talking about but didn't quite understand," said Ronald McGuirk, the committee chairman, " ... such as the ability to get to a burning structure more quickly when there are more firefighters."

Sun staff writer Ryan Davis contributed to this article.

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