It's an interesting statement of fact that reporter Liz Farmer wrote in an article on Wednesday for The Washington Examiner following the latest in a long series of DC City Council hearings on the amount of overtime money spent by the department. The theme of the article was, that despite DC Fire & EMS Department Chief Kenneth Ellerbe cutting overtime by more than 50 percent, the department is still $1 million over the 2011 budget.
It is this sentence that caught my attention when I read the article this afternoon: "Ellerbe in January took over Fire and Emergency Medical Services, a department with a history of overtime being abused and going notoriously over budget."
As I was reading the rest of the article I was hoping to find out who exactly in the department was abusing overtime. That's a pretty big charge to make, so I was looking for something to back up what reporter Farmer presented as fact in this article. I didn't find it.
Overtime paid to firefighters has been a hot button issue in many jurisdictions throughout the country. It is often been being used as ammunition to cut firefighter pay and other benefits. The public doesn't like to hear that firefighters are the highest paid government employees in their town, city or county, especially the way it's often portrayed by those who want to make big cuts in the department's budget. The issue has a tendency to take on a life of its own in a way that is sometimes based more on emotion than fact.
So, Liz Farmer, who exactly in the DC Fire & EMS Department has been abusing overtime? What exactly is that "history" you speak of? Where is the attribution for that statement? Was there some overtime scandal that you aren't telling us about that had firefighters putting in for overtime they didn't work? Was there a scheme to steer overtime to favored firefighters?
Maybe, Ms. Farmer, it isn't firefighters you are talking about. Was it former chiefs who abused the overtime? For themselves? For firefighters? Is Chief Ellerbe abusing overtime when, as he testified, part of that $1 million overrun was to make sure the department was able to handle the earthquake and hurricane that occurred back-to-back?
Could it instead be that the abuse isn't even within the department? Could it be that the City Council or the mayor didn't properly budget enough overtime to meet staffing requirements? Could it be that because the city leaders haven't filled positions overtime is required to keep the fire trucks and ambulances safely staffed?
Not being a reporter on this beat for about 15 months and not following the department in detail the way I used to, I can honestly say I don't know the answer to any of those questions. If you do Ms. Farmer, don't you think you should share it with your readers?
Being over budget on overtime, even on a regular basis, doesn't always mean something sinister is going on. In other words, use doesn't equal abuse. Once a phrase like "overtime abuse" is in the public record, it is often repeated as fact with little in the way to support it. My point Ms. Farmer, is that when you make a charged statement like that you should back it up with some facts for your readers.
For all I know, I may be the only one who is riled by those nine words. I am sure there are a lot of DC firefighters who are much more interested in the other part of Liz Farmer's article. I am referring to Chief Ellerbe's efforts to drastically change the work schedule of firefighters. Here's what Liz Farmer reported on that issue:
Meanwhile Ellerbe outlined his proposal to switch to 12-hour shifts from 24-hour shifts. The proposal essentially would have firefighters working shorter shifts, but more often, reducing the need for overtime shifts.
The department would have to renegotiate the collective bargaining agreement with the union to implement any schedule and pay changes. (Local 36 president Ed) Smith said the two sides plan on discussing the proposal and there is no deadline for reaching a new agreement.
Without the changes it would be impossible to slash overtime down to the council's $2.9 million allotment for this fiscal year without cutting service, Ellerbe said.
Also on STATter911 …
- DC hearing shows different views on how to handle peak EMS demand & medic shortage. Chief Ellerbe has second thoughts after communications director blocks press. – May 18, 2013
- Is it fraud or mismanagement? DC Council member asks for another IG investigation following testimony of Chief Ellerbe on mechanics’ overtime. – February 28, 2013
- Like Mayor Vince Gray, Washington Post Editorial Board has confidence in Chief Kenneth Ellerbe. Supports EMS redeployment & shift change. – March 18, 2013
- DC update: Is Chief Ellerbe fire proof? Watch hearing live. Relatives of patients in high-profile cases scheduled to testify. – March 28, 2013
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