Arundel firefighters add to county's public safety dissent

Anne Arundel County police officers and firefighters have made themselves clear: They don't believe the county's leadership can help their departments solve staffing and technological problems that they say pose a threat to public safety.

The county firefighters union's vote this week of no confidence in Fire Chief John Robert Ray is the latest expression of discontent by public safety workers. Following the lead of three police unions that called on County Executive John R. Leopold to step down, the firefighters union has scheduled its own no-confidence vote on Leopold for Tuesday.

All of the unions have cited slim budgets that have led to staffing shortages, as well as a debut of a $6.6 million dispatch and records system so problematic that the dispatch side was quickly unplugged. Police officers say they remain at wits' end dealing with the new reporting system.

Last week's indictment of Leopold on charges that he used his police security detail for campaign activities, personal tasks and transportation to trysts with a county employee only sharpened the debate.

"I think it just sends a very strong and clear message to Chief Ray and the county executive and, most important, to the citizens of Anne Arundel County that the men and women that protect them 24 hours a day are looking for new leadership," Craig Oldershaw, president of the Anne Arundel Professional Firefighters union, said of the no-confidence vote in Ray.

Three police unions have called on Leopold and Police Chief James Teare Sr. to resign. The men have vowed to continue in their jobs, as has Ray.

Leopold denounced the vote as a personal attack on a department head who is facing the same budget pressures as his peers across the country.

"This is another eruption of anger over tight budgets," said Leopold, who says he will fight the charges in his indictment. He said public safety workers continue to be angry about a law he sponsored last year limiting county workers' collective bargaining rights, and he expressed confidence in Ray.

Ray, a 34-year veteran of the department, said he will "continue to make certain that strategic decisions regarding the Fire Department are made with the best interest of our citizens in mind" and will work with the union.

The unions contend that poor judgment at the top is leading to problems that may threaten public and worker safety, as they focus on dissatisfaction with internal workings and resources of their agencies. All of those unions are at an impasse with the county in contract negotiations, and all have experienced furloughs or pay cuts in the past few years.

Staffing has been inadequate for years, Oldershaw contended. "We do with what we have, but we are getting to the point where it is going to become dangerous for them to continue at this pace," he said.

The department has 69 vacancies, Fire Department officials said.

The unions' complaints could be a way to draw attention to an issue that has so far escaped the public's attention, said Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College.

"In my view, they are trying to make visible that which is invisible, things that people just can't measure in their daily lives," he said. Ray is a member of an advisory board for the center run by Nataf.

In Nataf's survey of county residents a year ago, 26 percent of respondents said county services were diminished — but of that group, 24 percent pointed to road conditions and 19 percent to schools. Police and fire were named by just 6 percent each by people who participated in the survey, he said.

County officials say that the sour economy has everyone tightening their belts, government included, and all county workers have taken a hit.

The county has noted an overall 11.1 percent decrease in crime from 2006 to 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available. However, there was an upward nudge in violent crime from 2009 to 2010.

But the police unions say staffing has not kept pace with the population of the county. Over a decade, the population has grown by about 10 percent. The department had 666 police positions in 2001; the number is now 655, with 24 positions vacant.

The employees contend that the county would not be experiencing so many problems with its new dispatch and record-keeping system if workers who rely on it daily had been included in its development, testing and launch. Oldershaw said his members received scant training before the system went live.

Both fire and police officials say employees were involved over the years in the creation of the new system. The dispatch system operated with chronic problems for fewer than three weeks before police and fire chiefs insisted on unplugging it around Christmas and reactivated the old system. There is no projected date for re-installing the new dispatch system, as work continues on it.

Police officers say the record side, which is still operating, is difficult to use and increases the time it takes to write their reports. Police officials say they are working on shifting some data entry work away from the officers and retraining them, and note that technology changed during the time the entire system was developed.

O'Brien Atkinson, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said that while firefighters and police have some different specific job issues, one issue is the same: "This is about leadership, it about leadership in good times and leadership in lean times. It's not about negotiations."

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.

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