Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke today said he will veto a City Council bill mandating staffing levels on city fire engines, adding that the legislation would force the fire chief to close firehouses to control costs.
While Schmoke said he would veto the bill, scheduled for a final vote in the council on Monday, he said he agreed with its goal: that city fire engine companies should be staffed by four, rather than three, firefighters.
But Schmoke added that the Fire Department should retain the option to staff engine companies with three firefighters as circumstances dictate.
"By mandating a four-person crew, you take away the flexibility of the chief and leave him with one option: to close fire stations," TC Schmoke said. "This bill is really a fire station-closing bill."
Schmoke said that the city has been moving toward staffing its engine companies with four people, adding that three-person crews now are deployed mainly on weekends.
Moreover, in a letter to the Fire Board, Schmoke said it is the policy of his administration to retain four-man crews except in "exigent circumstances."
Firefighter union officials have said three-man engine company crews endanger the lives of city residents and firefighters.
Jeffrey DeLisle, president of Baltimore Fire Fighters Local 734, has said his members would rather see fire houses closed than reduced manning on fire equipment.
"This is not really a fiscal matter, it is a political matter because the mayor doesn't want the political fallout that comes from closing firehouses," DeLisle has said.
Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, introduced the bill requiring four-man crews last June, shortly after the Schmoke administration announced that the crews would be reduced from the normal four to three members.
Schmoke said then the move was necessary because there weren't enough firefighters to cover an additional shift that resulted from a reduced workweek that went into effect June 1.
Initially, Schmoke said the smaller work crews would last only until Sept. 1.
But today he said they would continue in spots through Dec. 8, when graduates of a new fire academy class bolster the department's ranks. After that, he said, three-man crews should be used only in rare circumstances.
DiBlasi said today he was not surprised at the mayor's position, but he was perturbed that Schmoke made the announcement without discussing it with council members.
"Now, it puts the council in the position of challenging the mayor," DiBlasi said.
Council President Mary Pat Clarke said she would consult with council colleagues to decide how to proceed with the bill.
Clarke said it was always her position that an official policy on manning adopted by the fire board was preferable to legislation.
"But in lieu of that, the council moves forward," Clarke said. "Above all, we can't lose sight of the real priority here and that is the safety of the public and our firefighters."
At a recent council hearing, the fire unions, using video presenttions and live testimony, asserted that three-man crews make it impossible for the first responding unit to combat a fire effectively.
But city officials have countered that three-man crews are used safely and as a matter of course in other cities.