Brushing aside a veto threat by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the chief sponsor of a bill to mandate staffing levels on city fire engine companies said he would press for a City Council vote on the matter tonight.
"Someone has to be accountable for the protection of fire personnel and the safety of the public," said Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th. "If the mayor and the fire chief want to give that up to the council, so be it."
Schmoke said last week that he would veto a bill requiring the city to staff its fire engine companies with four firefighters. The mayor explained that the legislation would leave him no way to control costs in the department other than to close fire stations.
And, while Schmoke has taken the politically painful step of closing fire stations in the past, the mayor said he wanted future closings to occur only as part of "consolidations" that come when new, larger fire stations are opened.
Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, D-5th, chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, which heard the staffing bill, said she won't be satisfied unless Schmoke commits to mandatory four-person crews.
"I feel strongly about public safety and the safety of fire personnel," Spector said. "If I didn't, we wouldn't have gone this far with the bill."
While Schmoke threatened to veto the bill, he said that 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 men as circumstances dictate.
City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and other council members said Schmoke's position is not sufficient to defuse a confrontation. Clarke said she would consult with council colleagues to decide how to proceed. She added 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 fire fighters."
Schmoke also said that the city solicitor has said the bill would violate the city charter by taking away executive functions from the Board of Estimates.
"By mandating a four-person crew, you take away the flexibility of the chief and leave him with one option: to close fire stations," Schmoke said. "This bill is really a fire station-closing bill."
Schmoke said the city has been moving toward staffing its engine companies with four people, and that three-person crews now are deployed mainly on weekends.
Firefighter union officials have said that every day the city operates fire equipment with three-person crews it endangers the lives of city residents and firefighters.
DiBlasi introduced his bill in June, 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 work week that went into effect June 1.
Initially, Schmoke said the smaller work crews would last only until Sept. 1.
But yesterday 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-person crews would be used only rarely.