Overtime reductions in Bethesda, Kensington and Wheaton could hurt public safety, firefighters say -- Gazette.Net



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A proposal from Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett to cut overtime at three fire stations could endanger public safety, according to some firefighters.

If approved by the County Council, the 2012-2013 budget would cut $200,000 in regularly scheduled overtime at Rescue 1 in Bethesda, Rescue 2 in Wheaton, and Station 5 in Kensington.

The stations are manned at night by volunteers, but career firefighters work overtime Monday-Friday for at least one hour each day to give volunteers time to get from home or work to fire houses.

“I’m not sure how we’re going to cover it,” said fire Chief Edward Sherburne of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad. “I don’t believe that they are doing this because they want to hurt us. We will have to see what alternative proposals will come out of the budget.”

Volunteers work 12-hour shifts and Sherburne is reluctant to impose 14-hour shifts.

The county’s projected fiscal 2013 budget included nearly $18 million in overtime. Leggett’s proposed budget includes approximately $13 million in overtime.

Every station has overtime, but these three are an easy target because overtime is built into the schedule, said John Sparks, president of the Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association. Regular overtime is scheduled for 14 people across the three stations.

“It just has a bullseye on it,” Sparks said. “You know it’s going to be there five days a week, every week of the year.”

At other stations, career firefighters staff stations overnight via 24-hour shifts. He said overtime at those stations is irregular, and stems from inadequate staffing. The county has not held a recruiting class for career firefighters for more than two years, he said.

“The County Executive and County Council need to adequately fund the fire department,” Sparks said, advocating for emergency medial services reimbursement.

The EMS reimbursement would help offset the cost of teacher pensions and fund fire and rescue services by charging insurance companies $8.50 per mile for ambulance transportation, plus $300-$800 depending on the level of care.

In Kensington, Station 5 receives 6 percent of its call load during overtime, said Ron Dowdy Jr., president of the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department.

“The decrease in staffing would actually put the community at more of a risk, and it would force the volunteers to pull more hours at Station 5 than we actually pull now,” he said. “The volunteers have normal jobs. If you work Monday through Friday 9-5, it is impossible to leave your job at be at the fire station at 5.”

As an alternative, Station 5 proposed maintaining the current schedule Monday-Thursday, and staffing the station with volunteers on Friday.

“All options are on the table,” said Eric N. Bernard, executive director of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire Rescue Association. “We understand the intent is to cut overtime costs, so that’s our goal. I’m confident that we will get there in some way, shape or form.”

jablamsky@gazette.net