Routine practices fuel Arundel firefighter OT

Overtime: A study finds virtually no controls on policies for staffing and leave.

December 03, 2003|By Ryan Davis and Julie Bykowicz | Ryan Davis and Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

On the Saturday after Independence Day, nearly half of the firefighters scheduled to work in Anne Arundel County wanted to take the day off. And county fire officials, keeping with a long-standing practice, granted the requests.

Covering the shifts of those 64 firefighters came with a cost to taxpayers: nearly $35,000 in overtime.

Although Maryland's other major suburban fire departments would not allow such mass absences, Anne Arundel officials routinely turn to overtime to provide basic services - with virtually no controls on its use, a review of department records and policies shows.

County leaders have long opted to pay overtime instead of hiring more firefighters, leaving Anne Arundel with lower staffing levels than other Baltimore-area counties. On top of that, Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds has pursued policies that encourage overtime spending.

The result: Anne Arundel's overtime tab hit a record $7.2 million last fiscal year, nearly 10 times the amount spent by larger and more populous Baltimore County. Per capita, Anne Arundel spent more on firefighter overtime than any of Maryland's other suburban fire departments.

The average firefighter earned $12,000 in overtime last fiscal year, and 23 firefighter supervisors made more than County Executive Janet S. Owens. The top earner, Capt. Keith Swindle, made $144,030.

"It's to the breaking point," says County Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr.

Tomorrow, a county task force will begin making recommendations for reducing fire overtime costs, which have almost doubled under Owens and Simonds.

The county executive formed the task force after The Sun reported in August on excessive overtime spending by the Anne Arundel Fire Department, including Simonds' use of overtime to renovate a warehouse after he was denied county funds.

A more detailed analysis by The Sun found that:

Because of bare-bones staffing, Anne Arundel's department routinely pays overtime to firefighters to meet its self-imposed minimum staffing levels. Still, the county puts fewer people on its engines than do other area departments.

A dwindling volunteer corps has exacerbated the staffing problem, and volunteers say Simonds turns to overtime before turning to them.

The powerful firefighters union has secured numerous perks that lead to overtime, such as sick days that go largely unmonitored and vacation time that accrues faster than it does for other county employees.

While the department struggles to keep enough firefighters and paramedics in its stations, Simonds requires that two paramedics ride each ambulance - a rule rare in other departments across the nation. This inflates the overtime tab and runs paramedics ragged.

Critics have raised questions about Simonds' budget management, partly because of his close ties to the firefighters union. Simonds' wife, a union member, recently served as its secretary-treasurer.

"There's a difference between being a manager and being a union guy, and I don't know if [Simonds] gets it," says former County Executive John G. Gary.

Simonds says he never saw the spiraling overtime budget as a problem because no one ever criticized it, even though he exceeded his budget by nearly $1 million last fiscal year. That led to an $800,000 overrun in his department's $65.6 million operating budget.

"If someone would have come to me and said, `You're in deep stuff,' I would have looked at things and made changes," says Simonds, 57, a lifelong county firefighter appointed chief by Owens in 1999.

Simonds has told the task force that his department's problem is not the size of its overtime budget but rather a shortage of firefighters. He says county leaders "continually rob Peter to pay Paul."

"We provide the best possible service we can," Simonds says, "for the resources made available to us."

Owens, whose budget cuts prompted protests by firefighters last summer, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Bare-bones staffing

Developing a network of firehouses is not a precise science, but filling them each day with firefighters is. Nearly every day in Anne Arundel, overtime is part of the equation.

The placement of fire stations is built around response times to emergencies - especially medical ones, which account for about 70 percent of fire department calls nationwide.

A person having a heart attack needs basic life support in four to six minutes and advanced life support in eight to 10 minutes, according to the American Medical Association. So fire departments aim to have enough stations to reach all of the county in this time frame.

But even using about 10,000 shifts of overtime for the fiscal year that ended June 30, Anne Arundel's average response time for basic life support was six minutes, 21 seconds.

"It's bad," says Kenneth Hyde, a volunteer chief in Anne Arundel and a lieutenant in the Baltimore City Fire Department.

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