The Baltimore City Council's public safety committee questioned fire officials about concerns raised by the union over the agency's resources and readiness to respond to blazes. Council members also asked about staffing policies and how the agency investigates misconduct allegations.
Last year, the department spent more than $18.2 million on overtime, surpassing its $10 million overtime budget.
Adams said the shortage of regularly scheduled firefighters and medics that is driving the need for overtime work is due to a variety of factors, including employees who are on leave for health reasons, military service or as a disciplinary measure. In some cases, such leaves begin on short notice.
“You can kind of anticipate it from a business standpoint,” she said. “It’s a big agency, with over 1,600 members, so there are a number of things going on.”
Asked whether a business that regularly operates with 30 percent of its staff on overtime pay is anticipating its staffing needs well, Adams said, “We utilize our resources the best way we can.”
City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the public safety committee, asked the department about its staffing decisions in recent oversight hearings.
The Baltimore City Council plans a hearing with fire department leaders after an aging truck caught fire and amid warnings from the firefighters' union about the agency's readiness. Councilman Brandon Scott says the hearing will be the first in a series to keep a closer watch on the department.
“It’s clear that accountability measures that were there in the past — with CitiStat, etc. — aren’t there,” Scott said. “That is why the council has stepped up and stepped in to have these oversight hearings, to try to highlight issues, to have as much accountability as we can.”
CitiStat, started under then-Mayor Martin O’Malley, was once a citywide force of data collection and pressure on administrators to demonstrate efficiency and proper management within their agencies. Under subsequent mayors, the office no longer published reports on its website, and critics said it lost steam.
Mayor Catherine Pugh has focused instead on collaborative Violence Reduction Initiative meetings, where administrators from all city agencies talk about improving neighborhoods.
She did not respond to a request for comment on this article.
Baltimore has a relatively large number of fires, compared to cities of similar size. Meanwhile, the need for paramedics has risen across the country in recent years — in part due to the exploding opioid epidemic, which has reached historic levels in Baltimore.
The Fire Department has struggled for years to deal with overtime. At an oversight hearing last month before Scott, Fire Chief Niles Ford said the department had a faulty payment system that had been miscalculating overtime pay since at least 2017 and still wasn’t fixed.
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The department’s overtime reliance recalled a similar practice by the Police Department, which also has had trouble filling scheduled shifts and spends millions of dollars more a year on overtime than it budgets for.
The police union recently said that officers were stretched so thin that they were, on a nightly basis, being told to respond only to the worst and most violent 911 calls for hours at at time. The Police Department did not deny that account, and has acknowledged that it is hundreds of officers short and relies on overtime to fill shifts.
But it said that’s expected to improve after a recent change to officers’ schedules, under which they routinely work five days a week instead of four.
The Fire Department will restructure positions to create a new two-tier response system to better staff peak demand times. The five-member Board of Estimates unanimously approved the plan without discussion.
The fire union did not respond to requests for comment.
However, the union recently negotiated substantial salary increases for emergency medical technicians who rise to become an EMT/firefighter or a paramedic. A paramedic can administer intravenous drugs and provide more advanced medical care than an EMT.
Adams said the raises are a “great incentive” for Fire Department personnel to learn skills — making them more versatile and able to fill different vacant positions — and view their work “not just as a job, but a career.”