Politicians Crying Fire

November 15, 1990

Anyone doubting that next year's city election season is rapidly approaching need only look at the squabbling between the City Council and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. The council has unanimously passed an inflexible ordinance that would require each fire engine company to be staffed with four firefighters. The mayor says he will veto it and go to court to block it, if need be.

There is pre-election maneuvering on all sides. Incumbent City Council members are currying favor in an attempt to win campaign contributions and endorsements from labor unions; the mayor wants to boost his re-election chances by announcing a 10-cent property tax cut when he unveils next year's budget.

If the new staffing requirement becomes law, other city unions are likely to ask for similar costly concessions. This would curtail the mayor's budgetary -- and political -- leeway. (An added dimension in this squabble is some unionists' criticism of Fire Chief Peter J. O'Connor's leadership.)

This confrontation is totally needless, provoked by people who do not have the city's -- or its taxpayers' -- best interests at heart.

The city's policy is to staff each fire engine with four firefighters. Exceptions to this rule have been made recently during weekends because a negotiated contract brought about d dTC shorter work week and more flexible vacation scheduling for firefighters. That, in turn, has resulted in $25,000 a day being spent in overtime. With a new class graduating from the Fire Academy, this transitional situation now seems over and four-man staffing levels should be resumed next month.

"From our perspective, this is not a labor issue or a money issue -- it is a serious safety issue," says Jeffrey DeLisle, president of the city firefighters' union. But are three-man crews a safety hazard? Definitely not. As a rule, four engine companies and two truck companies are sent to all fires.

Yet a safety hazard could be created by a law mandating that each fire engine be staffed by four firefighters: it could lessen fire protection by rendering companies inoperable when firefighters are ill during a shift and no immediate replacements are available. Under the proposed law, the fire engine would be out of commission and unable to respond to an alarm.

This proposed ordinance is nothing more than a brazen union attempt to interfere with management options of the fire chief and his top echelon. All City Council members should feel ashamed for acting as willing co-conspirators in this irresponsible political ploy.

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