Revamp of Fire Dept. weighed

Panel named by Owens to offer recommendations

`Not here to bury ... Simonds'

Hiring firefighters would alleviate overtime needs

Anne Arundel

December 12, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County Fire Department should hire more firefighters, better use its volunteers, restructure its paramedic system and limit the number of firefighters who can take vacation on a single day, members of a task force said yesterday.

The group, assembled this summer by County Executive Janet S. Owens, will soon make formal recommendations about how to overhaul Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds' embattled department and reduce its overtime spending.

"I'm not here to bury Roger Simonds," task force member Joseph Novotny said, "but I'm here to praise him and ask him to keep an open mind."

The task force will ask Simonds, top volunteers and firefighter union officials to respond to its informal list of ideas before presenting a report to Owens as early as next month.

During yesterday's meeting, it also recommended that the department switch to shorter work days, more closely monitor sick-day use, and reconfigure the way firefighters accrue and use vacation time. Task force members said their recommendations are intended to cut overtime costs, provide better service and heighten safety.

Owens formed the task force after The Sun reported that Simonds, after being denied capital funding, spent about $130,000 in overtime to complete an unauthorized renovation of a county warehouse. The department ran a $7.2 million overtime tab for the fiscal year that ended June 30, exceeding its overtime and overall budgets by nearly $1 million. Some firefighter supervisors doubled their pay with overtime and 23 earned more than Owens.

An analysis by the newspaper also found that county leaders have consistently chosen paying overtime instead of hiring new employees, that the union has secured numerous overtime-creating perks and that Simonds had made few attempts to rein in the growing costs.

While county officials have said overtime does not cost more than hiring, some task force members have said the county passed the breaking point.

As the preliminary proposals were being discussed yesterday, Simonds sometimes shook his head. The chief, who was appointed by Owens in 1999, said he will respond soon.

"Before I can make any comments today," Simonds said, "I need to sit down and look at what the recommendations are."

Owens declined an interview request yesterday. She has said she will withhold comment until she receives the group's final report.

Firefighters union president Keith W. Wright said yesterday that he's generally pleased with the task force's initial ideas. "There are a couple of particular items that cause me a little bit of concern," he said after yesterday's meeting.

One recommendation is not aimed specifically at reducing overtime, but rather at preventing situations in which employees work 48 consecutive hours by accepting overtime.

The task force recommended that the Fire Department do away with 24-hour shifts, creating a combination of 10- and 14-hour shifts. Paramedics, who are the department's busiest employees, should get more days off than other firefighters, members said.

In order to create the new system, the department would need to hire at least 11 paramedics, Novotny said.

The department should also hire more firefighters so that it has the flexibility to deny vacation time that would create overtime, said County Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a task force member. He did not say how many firefighters the county would need to hire.

Such a change would prevent a situation similar to one on July 5, when nearly half the firefighters scheduled to work were granted the day off. They were replaced by firefighters who were paid nearly $35,000 in overtime.

Wright, the union president, said he would not oppose such a change as long as the department hired enough people. He also said he wants to learn more about the proposed schedule changes.

Breaking apart the paramedic system Simonds created in 1972 will likely become the most contentious issue. Though Simonds said little yesterday, he has made clear his opposition to such a move.

Under the current system, two paramedics ride in each advanced life support ambulance, causing paramedic burnout and forcing them to work more overtime, task force members have said.

They recommended that while the department should still try to send two paramedics to emergency medical calls, only one paramedic should be required to transport patients to the hospital.

The paramedic would be accompanied by a qualified firefighter.

There is a paramedic shortage, task force members said, and the paramedics should not waste time driving ambulances to hospitals and getting stuck there while waiting for patients to gain admittance.

The task force also plans to further discuss its plans to suggest the department more closely monitor sick days, communicate better with volunteers, and reconfigure how firefighter vacation hours are accrued and used.

Officials have said the outdated vacation system allows firefighters - because of their shift schedules - to take an extra day and a half off each year.

Also yesterday, Simonds proposed that his department provide additional medical training to all of its recruits. Simonds said the plan would eliminate the county's paramedic shortage in three years.

The task force will meet again Thursday.

Sun staff writer Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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