Despite a veto threat from the mayor, the City Council has given final approval to a bill mandating four-man work crews on fire engines and ladder trucks.
Last night's unanimous vote by the council makes a veto-override showdown likely, probably early next month.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said last week that he intended to veto the bill because, he said, it ties the fire chief's hands to operate the department and also violates the City Charter.
The mayor has five regular council meetings in which to return the bill with his veto and an explanation of his objections. The council is scheduled to meet five more times before it recesses for the holidays Dec. 10.
Crews on engines and ladders are now operating with four men during the week, but with only three on weekends and holidays. Schmoke said last week that all work crews should be back to the four-man level by Dec. 8, and that three-man crews would be a rare exception after then.
But fire union officials and so far, a unanimous council, have said they don't want even a rare exception.
The bill's chief sponsor, Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, said he is not worried that the issue will become moot if the mayor waits until all fire crews are back to four-man levels to send his veto to the council.
"The unanimous approval of the bill by the council is an indication that we will remain strong on this issue and will vote to override the veto," DiBlasi said.
DiBlasi would have to persaude 15 of the 19 members -- a three-fourths majority -- to override a veto.
The council decided not to bring out for a vote several amendments that would have fixed the manning for other fire equipment such as aerial towers and fire boats. DiBlasi said the amendments were dropped a compromise to give the Fire Department some staffing flexibility.
The mayor announced a reduction of four-man crews to three last June, saying there weren't enough personnel to cover an additional shift that resulted when a new reduced work week went into effect June 1. An attempt to call back personnel to cover the shifts proved too costly in overtime.
Schmoke said the smaller work crews would last only until Sept. 1. But in September he said they would continue through November until another fire academy class could provide additional personnel.
The mayor last week characterized the manning bill as a fire house closing bill. If circumstances require a future reduction in manning but an ordinance prohibited that, Schmoke said he would have to close fire houses.
Fire union officials told a City Council hearing two weeks ago that they preferred fire house closings to another reduction in manning. They said public safety would be less endangered by closing fire houses than it would be if they fought a fire with less than four men to a unit.
Jeffrey A. DeLisle, president of Baltimore Fire Fighters Local 734, said the Fire Department has been using four-man crews for 20 years as a matter of departmental policy "for the safety of the public and fire personnel."
DeLisle contended said the decision to reduce the work crews was as much a political one as a fiscal one. The mayor, DeLisle maintained, didn't want the political fallout that comes from closing fire houses.