- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2012

D.C. fire department officials deny accusations by the union that three fire trucks were placed out of service this weekend to trim overtime costs, but the department is on the verge of surpassing its overtime budget by about $2 million this fiscal year.

In late May, the District’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services department was about $84,000 shy of exceeding its overtime budget for 2012, with four months left in the fiscal year. Of the department’s $3.82 million overtime budget, the department had spent $3.73 million as of May 20, according to overtime budget statistics provided by the District Council’s Committee on the Judiciary.

Overtime spending within the fire department this fiscal year has averaged $200,000 per pay period and officials estimate that overtime spending this year could go $1.98 million in the red, according to a fiscal 2013 budget report.

Because of underspending in other areas, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the department will end the year overall within its budget, but he still frowns upon the reliance on overtime.

“I continue to be very concerned because I think there are too many people in fire and EMS who think that overtime is ordinary and acceptable. And I don’t think that overtime should be ordinary — it’s extraordinary,” Mr. Mendelson said.

Historically the department has had a difficult time staying within its overtime budget, and has consistently exceeded it for a decade. As a result, it began having almost monthly committee hearings in 2009 to address the problem. Since fiscal year 2003, the closest it came to the budgeted amount was last year, when the department overspent its $4 million overtime budget by about $500,000, the 2013 budget report states.

This year’s projected $1.98 million overrun is an improvement compared to much greater overspending in prior years, and Mr. Mendelson noted that Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe has been able to reduce costs elsewhere by “getting more people off of leave and back into the firehouses.”

This time around, union officials blame the overtime costs on a high number of vacancies within the department — 163 unfilled positions as of this month — and question why savings from the vacancies weren’t used to pay for the overtime and keep the units on the streets last weekend.

“With 163 vacancies, there are obviously big savings in the general fund that could be re-purposed to the overtime fund,” said Ed Smith, president of the D.C. Fire Fighters Association. “Responding to emergencies is a core service of ours and that should be our main priority.”

The union blasted the department this week for playing “firehouse roulette” after three units — from fire stations in Adams Morgan, North Cleveland Park and Washington Highlands — were sidelined for periods Friday and Saturday and their crews sent to staff other locations.

A fire department spokesman has said overtime spending had nothing to do with why the units were taken out of service.

“During the past weekend, the District’s Fire and EMS department experienced a high amount of leave usage that resulted in the department having to distribute staff to ensure appropriate fire and EMS coverage for all sectors of the city,” spokesman Lon Walls wrote in a statement.

He did not respond to other questions about overtime spending.

This month, Chief Ellerbe told the Committee on the Judiciary that several dozen anticipated new hires, as well as a change in firefighters’ work schedules, will help alleviate extra overtime. The department and union are still engaged in negotiations over the schedule change and are barred from discussing it, but originally the department proposed changing 24-hour shifts to more frequent 12-hour shifts.

The union’s red flag drew attention of D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh, who wrote to Chief Ellerbe questioning why the units were placed out of service and whether the maneuver put residents in danger.

“If this practice continues, I think communities should have prior notice of which stations will be affected, when, and why they were chosen,” Ms. Cheh wrote.

Asked if the practice is a justifiable way to cut spending, Mr. Mendelson said, “I think they have other ways of reducing overtime.”

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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