Illness delays Arundel task force report

Panel to recommend ways to reduce firefighters' OT

December 04, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz and Ryan Davis | Julie Bykowicz and Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

A task force studying overtime spending by the Anne Arundel County Fire Department won't start making recommendations for bringing it under control until next week.

Its meeting scheduled for today was canceled after one member, Joseph Novotny, was rushed to the hospital yesterday morning. He was expected to stay overnight at Anne Arundel Medical Center for tests.

The group is weighing a range of options for controlling the department's overtime tab, which hit a record $7.2 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30. The next scheduled meeting is Dec. 11.

The task force, which has met seven times, plans to complete its work in the next several weeks, member Ronald C. Dillon Jr. said yesterday.

"We're truly getting to the end," he said. With next year's budget process and union negotiations right around the corner, Dillon said the task force must act quickly if it wants to see its suggestions implemented.

County Executive Janet S. Owens formed the task force in August, after reports in The Sun revealed that Anne Arundel spends millions more on overtime than neighboring jurisdictions. Also, Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds used overtime money to fund an unauthorized warehouse renovation project.

The Sun reported yesterday that Anne Arundel County officials routinely turn to overtime to provide basic services, with virtually no controls. Low staffing levels, a dwindling volunteer corps, liberal leave policies and a costly paramedic rule have helped fuel overtime spending.

Owens, who declined to comment, and County Council members have said they are awaiting the task force's findings.

"I'm reserving judgment until I get that," said C. Edward Middlebrooks, the new chairman of the County Council. "Clearly, I think there need to be changes."

Simonds, who heads the 630-firefighter department, recently cautioned that the task force has focused on a limited number of issues.

"They've taken just a very, very small look at who we are and how we do business," he said in a recent interview, " ... and that has to be taken into consideration."

But task force members have said they expect to recommend major changes.

Potential suggestions include: implementing stricter vacation and sick day rules, hiring more firefighters, using more volunteers and placing some limits on how the chief can spend overtime funds.

Some task force members have also hinted at changing the two-paramedics-per-ambulance requirement that has been criticized for inflating paramedic overtime and exhausting paramedics who are sometimes forced to work 48 hours straight.

Dillon, who has been researching shift schedules, said he would like to see the department's 130 or so paramedics work 10- and 14-hour days instead of their current 24-hour shifts.

"With paramedics, there's a need for critical decision-making," he said yesterday. "That's obviously impaired by the end of the shift."

Dillon said the shorter shifts may help attract paramedics to the county. As with nurses, there is a nationwide shortage of paramedics. Although Anne Arundel was recently authorized to hire 10 more paramedics, the county could find only seven.

Even if the shift change is approved, Dillon said, it might not have a major impact on the overtime bill. To attack the growing costs of overtime, he said, the department would likely have to begin hiring more firefighters and retooling its lenient leave policies.

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