Firefighters, officials see contract as step forward

But Arundel still needs to replace chief, boost staffing levels per shift

April 25, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The contract negotiated this month between Anne Arundel firefighters and the county will address many problems that have troubled the department in recent years, county officials say.

The department will have more staff and less need to spend $7 million on overtime, as it did last fiscal year.

Firefighters will have more time off between 24-hour shifts, so they will be less tired.

Vacations will be scheduled in advance so the department won't face another day like last July 5, when almost half the firefighters scheduled to work were on leave.

But the contract is not a cure-all, county and fire officials warn. It does not fill the void at the top of the department that was left when Chief Roger C. Simonds resigned last month.

It does not significantly improve staffing levels on individual shifts, the department's biggest problem, according to many firefighters.

And it does not explain how the county will pay for improvements to its fire and emergency medical services, a question that won't begin to be answered until County Executive Janet S. Owens releases her proposed budget on May 3.

"The issues we could address through bargaining, I think we did," said Keith Wright, president of the county firefighters' union. "Everybody wins here as far as we're concerned. ... But there are some issues we could not get at in the context of contract negotiations."

County officials offered a similar perspective.

"These are the issues I thought would be and should be addressed through negotiations," said Mark Atkisson, who worked on the contract as the county's personnel officer and also served on an appointed committee that reviewed the department last year. "There are a lot of issues still to be addressed outside of the contract."

The pact, approved by 96 percent of firefighters who voted, required concessions from both the county and the union.

The county will spend as much as $4 million to add 74 firefighters, though officials hope much of that cost will be offset by reduced overtime expenses. The increased manpower will allow the county to have four fire platoons instead of three and, as a result, firefighters will have 72 hours off between shifts instead of the 48 hours they have now.

Wright said the county needed to make such changes to compete with neighboring jurisdictions for qualified employees.

The union, meanwhile, relented on several issues related to leave. By the end of the contract, firefighters will have to schedule all leave in advance, and the county will limit the number of firefighters allowed off on a given day. The union also agreed to higher health-care rates.

Wright said such concessions were difficult but that firefighters understand the changes might help prevent the scheduling difficulties and budget overruns that have troubled the department.

"The union gave back some really big items, but we gained some really big ones, too," he said, adding that the give and take was the most extensive he had seen in more than 10 years of negotiating contracts with the county.

Said Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena councilman who served on the committee that reviewed the department: "I think it was a give and take, and I think it's going to be a step forward for both sides."

Union and county officials said the scrutiny faced by the department in recent months made significant change an imperative.

The Sun reported last year that the county 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.

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