Firefighters' overtime expected to hit a record

Howard County's bill for the fiscal year is estimated at $3.3 million

April 15, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

When fire union President Richard L. Ruehl enters a Howard County station on any given day, he is not surprised to find three of the five firefighters on duty earning overtime.

The practice of relying on time and a half to provide basic emergency services has become so widespread that the fire department's overtime bill is expected to reach a record $3.3 million this fiscal year, or $1.5 million more than officials had planned.

This week, the department took its first major step toward fixing the problem. It hired 32 recruits, who will fill 22 vacancies and 10 new positions after finishing training. And leaders pledged that they will use a federal grant and savings from the old vacancies to cover the extra overtime and keep the fire department in the black.

Ruehl said Fire Chief Joseph A. Herr and County Executive James N. Robey have pushed policies that drove up overtime, including doubling firefighters' paid personal days and leaving vacant positions open for multiple years as a cushion for the overtime budget.

"We have always maintained that the long-term solution for adequate and safe staffing levels was to hire people, rather than intentionally hold open vacancies to cover for overtime," Ruehl said. "Overtime is a decent short-term fix, but overall it's not a very good practice."

Victoria Goodman, a county spokeswoman, said that tight budgets gave Herr and Robey little choice between overtime and hiring, and that the new recruit class proves that leaders are committed to not overextending their firefighters.

Since July 1, on average, six of the 58 firefighters working every day are on overtime.

Overtime is always a controversial subject for public safety leaders.

Fire departments must maintain certain levels of staffing to respond to emergencies in a timely and safe manner and to keep homeowners' insurance costs low. Circumstances that generate overtime, such as floods or snowstorms, are often unpredictable.

Howard County, however, is expected to be thousands of dollars more over its overtime budget than Anne Arundel County was in 2002. That county's $7.2 million overtime bill -- just under $1 million more than was budgeted -- cost its fire chief his job last year.

But a task force formed to investigate Anne Arundel's problem also found egregious abuses, including the use of overtime to renovate a warehouse after the county scrapped the project and the creation of unauthorized positions.

Ruehl, the fire union leader, said that similar examples of mismanagement are not a part of Howard's problem.

Instead, he said he believes Herr, who took the job in 2000 after years with Washington's much larger department, is trying to build a more sophisticated and well-trained force but is doing so with poor planning.

"I would say that there hasn't been as much attention paid to long-term solutions to the problem, as I thought there might have been," Ruehl said.

Fire department spokesman William Mould blamed the overtime on four factors -- only one of which was known at the beginning of the budget process, he said.

First, the fire department offered jobs to 14 paramedics earlier in the budget year, but the effort netted only two. Rather than allow some fire engines to go without a paramedic, Herr staffed them in most cases with people on overtime.

The failed recruitment effort caused a second surge in overtime when Herr opted to train 12 of his firefighters, including three volunteers, to a more advanced medical response level.

Each time a firefighter misses a shift, someone earning time and a half fills the spot. That means each hour of training costs at least 150 percent more than normal.

Another training program, called Urban Search and Rescue (USAR), is responsible for more overtime, but in some ways it is also the chief's saving grace.

A federal homeland security grant will eventually reimburse the cost of training about 40 Howard County firefighters to rescue people trapped under rubble or in other perilous situations. USAR is one of the most advanced disaster response programs in the country.

Finally, volunteer firefighters in West Friendship asked Herr to staff their station with a full-time paramedic at all times. Herr agreed, but he is using people on around-the-clock overtime to do the job.

Making that situation even more expensive, the union insisted that an officer fill the spot because Ruehl said it is "inappropriate" for a full-time firefighter to report to a volunteer.

"These efforts are not overly ambitious," said Goodman, Robey's spokeswoman. "Other initiatives, unfortunately, we can't move forward with at once, but some, like these, we can't afford to delay."

Ruehl added one more reason for the overtime bill. On Jan. 1, 2004, firefighters' paid personal leave days doubled from 28.8 hours to 57.6 hours, or about six days, a year.

Robey offered all county employees the perk during a tight budget year to compensate for smaller raises and fewer hires.

Ruehl said the union tried to persuade county leaders to give employees the cash equivalent of 28.8 more hours, rather than allow them to take more time off, which leads to open shifts and more overtime.

But Goodman said that county leaders did not have the cash, wanted to make the policy equal across all departments and conducted a study that found Howard was low on personal leave time, compared with its neighbors.

"It would have been cheaper to pay us outright," Ruehl said.

Once the 32 new recruits are trained, Ruehl expects the department's overtime costs per firefighter to shrink, and he said he has repeatedly warned his members that that day is coming soon.

"I've tried to remind them that you don't come to work for overtime pay, you come to work for your base salary and any extras for advanced certifications," he said. "I've also told them to spend it wisely, and not rely on it for daily living."

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