Quenching the fires of overtime

December 05, 2003

ANNE ARUNDEL County's Fire Department needs a thorough overhaul to cut egregious overtime costs, to better use personnel and to deploy its volunteers to mesh with the paid firefighters.

A task force appointed by the county executive is to make its recommendations next week.

The main focus is a whopping overtime bill of $7.2 million last fiscal year, $1 million over budget and 60 percent higher than it was five years ago.

Ways to cut back on overtime and improve staffing have been raised throughout the county since The Sun exposed abuses in the system this summer. Their thrust is to make these vital emergency workers work more efficiently.

Chief Roger C. Simonds now says he needs 180 new positions to meet staffing and overtime problems. That figure's not realistic, given the budget squeeze. But more firefighters and paramedics will need to be hired, after attention to further efficiencies.

Revising vacation, overtime-cycle and sick-leave policies that lead to daily, routine overtime is a first step: They are inconsistent with those of other Anne Arundel employees and with firefighter policies in neighboring counties.

Making better use of 600 active volunteer firefighters, not long ago the backbone of county fire suppression efforts, is another obvious solution. The department has been reluctant to adjust schedules to use this trained but unpaid work force; the dwindling corps of volunteers needs to redouble commitments to fill agreed-to shifts.

Two other prominent issues need to be addressed: the chief's insistence on two paramedics riding in each ambulance (contrary to national practice) and the county's regular failure to staff each responding fire truck and engine with four firefighters, the national professional standard.

Ambulances carrying one paramedic and a firefighter trained in basic life support would permit better coverage of county emergencies, while cutting back on draining 48-hour shifts for these scarce EMS staffers and reducing their overtime pay. Crews in neighboring counties report a faster average ambulance response time. But Chief Simonds has made two-paramedic crews his pet program and will need to be strongly pushed to change it.

Finally, the chief's penchant for skirting the budget process to accomplish his "mission" needs to be curtailed. Without approval, he assigned staffers to work overtime renovating a warehouse for headquarters offices and a workout room. And he paid routine overtime to cover jobs of two captains he transferred to his headquarters, again without authorization.

Whether supervisory lieutenants and captains should be in the firefighter union and collecting hefty overtime pay is another matter that needs attention, perhaps in collective bargaining negotiations.

Overtime pay in true emergencies may be needed, but it must not be routine for an effective Anne Arundel public safety system.

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