Stokes facing staffing issues

Hiring and retention are concerns, audit says

December 10, 2006|By Andrea F. Siegel and Phillip McGowan | Andrea F. Siegel and Phillip McGowan,[sun reporters]

The Anne Arundel County Fire Department, which has been beset by whopping overtime costs as it has scrambled to fill vacancies and new jobs, is moving toward reining in the additional pay as it implements a long-awaited staffing plan.

The department has hired 375 employees in less than three years to deal with waves of departures and meet the staffing demands of adding a fourth work shift. The lack of a fourth shift has been blamed for firefighter discontent and the county's high overtime tab.

The current class of recruits will graduate Jan. 12 and start work immediately, barely two weeks after the start of the fourth shift at the end of this month, according to fire officials. The department has roughly filled its 833 budgeted positions.

Nevertheless, the department is troubled by a higher rate of attrition among recruits than neighboring departments, according to a recent hiring audit.

The new chief, David L. Stokes Sr., is in a stronger position to reduce overtime spending, but he also must grapple with issues relating to hiring and retention just as labor negotiations are about to begin.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the department spent $8.6 million in overtime and extra pay. Less than $3 million had been budgeted.

A $7.2 million overtime bill for the fiscal year that ended in June 2003 cost Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds his job.

This year, the department is roughly on track to stay within the $5.8 million budgeted for overtime, according to county figures.

"I want to try to get in front of the overtime. That's the issue I discussed with the new chief before I hired him," said County Executive John R. Leopold, who assumed office Monday.

Leopold did not retain Chief Ronald D. Blackwell, who had been criticized for not sufficiently curbing overtime spending.

Stokes said he is looking at ways to deal with the issues of testing, hiring, attrition of recruits and pay.

"I have to study the facts to find out why people are leaving here and analyze that," Stokes said. "I want to study other departments to find out why they have a better success rate than we do, and call some who did leave and ask them why."

Stokes said he wants to have a clear picture of what drives recruits to leave so that the county can hire a diverse work force and entice firefighters to stay.

The November audit painted a picture of frenzied hiring done with little involvement of the fire department, coupled with spotty documentation of the reasons workers leave. It recommended that the department take a greater role in hiring personnel and document the reasons they quit.

According to the audit, the Fire Department had a 20 percent attrition rate among recruits between January 2004 and the end of August this year, while other departments in the area ranged between 9 percent and 16 percent.

Fire Department spokesman Stu McNicol said that of 61 recruits who left between Jan. 29, 2004 and Aug. 25, most listed no reason beyond "resigned." Sixteen were discharged, three quit for other jobs, and eight worked less than a week for the department.

Another issue raised in the audit was the department's failure to be reimbursed by the 80 firefighters from the nine fire school classes since 2002 who were fired or quit. Nine have been billed, and only for supplies and materials. Two have fully paid, and a third is paying.

Though the contract requires training reimbursements, if new hires do not complete five years on the job, the county does not bill those it fires, the audit says.

The cost of training a recruit varies depending on the recruit's skill level, class size and duration, but it is estimated at $18,380 to $32,777, according to the department.

Leopold said firefighters who leave before fulfilling their obligations to Anne Arundel must reimburse the county for their training.

"The taxpayer's interest is paramount," said Leopold, a Republican. "The taxpayers have the right to believe that if the county is making the investment" in training firefighters, that "the investment will produce the desired results."

Chief Stokes "recognizes the importance, as I do, that if the county makes the investment to train public safety personnel, that those people agree to work in our county," Leopold said.

Leopold said the department will begin conducting more "effective" exit interviews to get to the bottom of the attrition issues so that "we can secure savings and get out in front of these issues" and ensure that "we can deliver quality service.

At the same time, fire officials say, the department does not want to scare off potential recruits.

Bob Stevens, president of the firefighters union, said those who go into the fire academy and realize that firefighting is not the right occupation for them should not be penalized.

Officials from the previous administration said that forcing firefighters to reimburse the county could hurt with recruiting efforts.

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