EMS issues tackled in deal

Firefighters' contract addresses some problems identified by county

`It was a give and take'

New chief, more staffing still on agency's agenda

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

The contract negotiated earlier 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 thus 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, for example, 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.

A newspaper analysis found that the Fire Department lacked adequate controls on overtime spending, and that bare-bones staffing caused officials to dip into overtime routinely to meet staffing requirements.

In January, the ad-hoc committee appointed by Owens to examine the department recommended several changes, including tighter controls on vacation and a restructured paramedic system.

In February, the county auditor recommended adding 84 firefighters to the 629-employee department.

In March, Owens forced Simonds out after months of criticism of his management practices and his department's overtime tab.

Such events added an unusual urgency to negotiations, said those involved. "With the ad-hoc committee report out there, the county clearly wanted to advance that agenda," Wright said. "So we clearly had to bargain on those issues."

Owens said she thought the negotiations reflected her panel's recommendations.

"The committee did an outstanding job of grasping the issues surrounding fire service," the county executive said. "We were able to address many of those issues within our negotiations ... to reach a fair and fiscally prudent agreement."

Wright emphasized that he and other firefighters still hope to see more financial commitment from the county. He is concerned that the department still lags behind federal standards for staffing levels on individual shifts.

"That's the biggest issue still out there that we haven't been able to make any progress on," he said.

County officials say such shortages would have to be addressed in the context of the budget, but with the county facing a $15 million shortfall, few seem confident that greater funding will come this year.

The county also is searching for a new chief to replace Simonds.

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