The Anne Arundel County Fire Department, which has been under scrutiny for its management practices and soaring overtime tab, soon will become the first department to give up accreditation from the Commission on Fire Accreditation International.
The designation from the Chantilly, Va., agency is voluntary. Fewer than 100 agencies in the world have achieved the status, which is considered a mark of prestige. County fire officials say the loss of status will not affect their emergency response.
But Keith W. Wright, president of the county firefighters union, said losing the designation "means that we're going backwards. ... It just further makes an impact on morale."
In a March 11 letter obtained by The Sun, Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds raises questions about the stability of his department and its service. He also informs the commission that Anne Arundel will not be renewing its status, which expires this month, accreditation officials said.
"When the initial accreditation process was under way, our department was very stable," Simonds wrote. "The senior staff was able to project a reasonable level of growth and conduct the appropriate planning necessary for our department to continue to provide an outstanding level of service. ... Our situation has since changed."
Around the world, 89 departments - including Howard County and Annapolis - have received certification from the nonprofit commission, officials there said. To attain certification, departments must develop long-range plans, submit to reviews by fire officials and meet a list of more than 100 core competencies.
Commission officials said it is the world's only such accreditation agency.
Anne Arundel was one of the first agencies to earn the commission's accreditation, which lasts for five years, and it is one of the first agencies to come up for renewal.
County fire spokesman John M. Scholz, a division chief, said department leaders have been busy putting together their budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. In recent months, they also have been providing information to a task force that County Executive Janet S. Owens appointed last August to study the troubled department. It didn't have time to put together a good report, he said.
"We would rather opt out than do poorly and lose accreditation," Scholz said.
`Resources are limited'
He added that the cost of the accreditation process (a few thousand dollars), impending changes recommended by the task force and the department's "bare bones" staffing also contributed to the decision not to renew.
"When your resources are limited," Scholz said, "you have to shift your resources to what the issue at hand is."
Bonny Downing, the program coordinator for the commission, said she was surprised by Anne Arundel's decision because the reaccreditation process is shorter than starting over, which the county will need to do if it wants to be accredited again.
"It's not something you would expect, once someone has put forth that much effort and energy and gotten that accreditation," Downing said.
A spokesman for Owens said she was unavailable Friday to discuss the decision.
In the letter, Simonds indicates that the department may seek accreditation again in "several years." Scholz said it will continue to develop the required plans on its own timeline, instead of the process required by the commission. The department will maintain its quality, he said.
Anne Arundel initially earned certification under then-Chief Stephen Halford in 1999, just before Owens appointed Simonds to replace him.
Simonds' department has been under increased scrutiny lately. Owens formed the task force after reports in The Sun last August detailed how Anne Arundel was spending millions more on firefighter overtime than other Baltimore-area counties and that the fire chief had approved the use of overtime money for an unauthorized warehouse renovation.
The task force's report and a county auditor's report recommended management controls as well as hiring more firefighters.
Owens is deciding what changes to make.
Wright, of the fire union, said he agreed with Simonds' decision not to re-accredit and said it reflects Owens' decision last year to cut from the Fire Department in order to balance the county budget.
"This," he said, "just reinforces the county's lack of commitment to the fire service."
Sun staff writer Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.