Reforms proposed for fire agency

Anne Arundel task force advises hiring part-timers, better use of volunteers

January 08, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz and Ryan Davis | Julie Bykowicz and Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

A task force recommended major reforms yesterday to the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, including an overhaul of policies that drove up overtime spending and allowed some firefighter supervisors to double their pay last year.

To reduce overtime, the task force suggested that Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds eliminate layers of management in the department, better use volunteer firefighters, hire part-time firefighters and more tightly manage how many people take off on the same day.

It also wants to scrap two longstanding policies that affect emergency responses: the 24-hour shift schedule and Simonds' requirement that two paramedics ride ambulances to high-priority calls.

The draft report is the first official finding that the department must control its overtime spending. But the report does not address a key question the group was asked to answer: Should the county hire more firefighters or continue to pay overtime to fill its firehouses?

"I'm having a hard time making these decisions not knowing what the bottom lines on these recommendations are," said task force member Henry Farrell, a county budget analyst.

The task force has asked the Fire Department to make last-minute calculations that weigh the merits of paying overtime vs. hiring more firefighters. It will meet this morning in hopes of completing the report.

County Executive Janet S. Owens formed the group after The Sun reported in August that Anne Arundel spent $7.2 million on overtime - millions more than neighboring counties - last fiscal year and that Simonds had tapped overtime to pay for an unauthorized warehouse renovation. The department exceeded its budget by more than $800,000, and thanks to overtime, 23 firefighters earned more than Owens' salary of $101,999.

Yesterday's draft report, which is still subject to a final vote, criticizes Simonds for using about $135,000 in overtime funds to pay firefighters to renovate the warehouse for department use. He had been denied capital funding for the project.

Otherwise, the report does not mention Simonds, though some of its recommendations, such as changing the way the department responds to medical emergencies, would roll back longstanding policies.

"Even though people know I don't agree with certain things they've said, out of this committee there will come good," Simonds said after yesterday's task force meeting. He added that he plans to remain chief.

Owens and Simonds, whom she appointed in 1999, will soon meet to discuss the task force's report and decide what recommendations to implement. Through a spokesman, Owens declined to comment yesterday.

Some of the suggestions would require law changes, and others must be negotiated with the firefighters union.

After meeting 10 times, the task force wants to wrap up in time so that its suggestions can be negotiated into a new union contract and the next budget. The current contract and the county budget expire June 30.

Although excessive overtime spending prompted Owens to create the task force, its scope broadened. Its recommendations yesterday were made with an eye toward faster responses to medical emergencies, less-grueling workdays for paramedics, and improved efforts to recruit and retain paramedics.

Nationwide, medical calls account for about 70 percent of fire emergency calls. Anne Arundel's paramedics complain that they are run ragged, partly because they are sometimes forced to work 48 consecutive hours to fill empty shifts.

The task force strongly urged that they no longer work 24-hour shifts, suggesting a mix of 10- and 14-hour days, as paramedics do in Baltimore County. It also supported training more firefighters as paramedics and putting one paramedic on an ambulance, instead of two, so that paramedics are available in more areas of the county.

Although the task force made no specific suggestions on how to pay for the changes, its members said Owens "needs to evaluate" raising money through a tax on cellular phone use or fees charged to developers whose projects strain emergency medical service. Without more information about costs, some task force members said they did not want to recommend adding firefighters to reduce overtime.

Member Mark Atkisson, who is also the county's personnel officer, said he believes it would still be cheaper for the county to use overtime instead of hiring.

But member Ronald C. Dillon Jr., also a county councilman, said last night that the county should hire more full-time firefighters, not just hire part-time employees and make better use of volunteers.

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