Contending they have been betrayed by the city, Baltimore firefighters have gone to court to force the department to restore what they feel is sufficient manpower to operate fire apparatus safely.
"It's really bad out there," said Jeffrey A. DeLisle, president of Baltimore Firefighters Local 734. "We have been very fortunate so far that nothing serious has happened. But we are now getting into the fall and winter months when fires generally increase. Something needs to be done soon."
During contract negotiations in 1988, the city and the union went to arbitration over the length of the workweek for firefighters. The arbitrator ruled that the workweek should be reduced from 47 hours to 44.8, Mr. DeLisle said -- a move that in effect meant the city had to hire an additional 120 firefighters to maintain its manning levels.
The city did not have the extra manpower available at the time and said new firefighters could not be hired and trained until the 23rdmonth of the contract -- this past June 1.
But when June 1 came, the city had not hired the additional firefighters because of budget constraints. Instead, it decided to reduce the number of firefighters manning engines from four to three.
"What can we do?" asked Capt. Patrick P. Flynn, a Fire Department spokesman. "The city Finance Department didn't approve the two academy classes we needed.
"We have to train them," he said. "We can't just say, 'You are a firefighter,' and put you on the street. It would be ideal to have four men on each engine, and sometimes we do, but we can operate with three until then."
On an engine, one firefighter is assigned to stay by the hydrant to turn on the water while a second controls the pressure from gauges on the engine. This leaves the fire officer to deal with the fire alone, Mr. DeLisle, the union official, said, making working a fire awkward and dangerous.
Captain Flynn contended that, as other fire engines arrive on the
scene, the firefighters on each apparatus can assist each other and reduce the risks.
Fire officials feel that it will be December before they will be able to revert to having four firefighters on each engine. Mr. DeLisle said the city informed the union in June that it would be able to comply by September.
When it became apparent that the city would not meet that deadline, the fire union chose to take the issue to court. The suit, filed Aug. 21, asks the court to order the city to restore four-man crews to fire engines.
A Circuit Court hearing is scheduled for Oct. 19.
Captain Flynn said it would cost the city an estimated $750,000 a month in overtime to put four firefighters back on the engines before sufficient new firefighters can be hired and trained.
But Mr. DeLisle called the reasons for the city's delay "absolutely ridiculous."
"We don't believe anything they say now," he said. "All they are doing is delaying the inevitable."