Compromise is reached on size of city fire crews

November 27, 1990|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Evening Sun Staff

The City Council and the Schmoke administration have worked out a compromise over a council-passed bill that mandated the size of city fire crews. The agreement avoids, for now, a legislative and legal showdown.

The compromise involves action by the mayor, the council and the city Fire Board and comes three weeks after the council, against the wishes of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, unanimously approved legislation mandating the four-member crews on pumper engines and ladder trucks.

From the beginning, Schmoke had said he would veto the bill because it violated the City Charter. He also said if the council voted to override his veto, he would take the matter to court.

The compromise agreement was set up this way:

* Schmoke did not veto the measure and, instead, last night sent it back to the council.

* The council, in accordance with the compromise, then referred the bill to the Judiciary Committee, which can revive the measure any time within the next year.

* The Board of Fire Commissioners has agreed, at its next meeting Dec. 11, to reaffirm its long-standing policy that pumper engines and ladder trucks be operated with four-member crews.

In a letter yesterday to Council President Mary Pat Clarke, board President David L. Glenn wrote that "it is the board's intention to apply this policy consistently in accord with the spirit of the legislation."

It takes a vote of 15 members of the 19-member council to override a mayoral veto.

One council member said the mayor had the five votes necessary to block a veto override and that knowledge led to the compromise.

Peter Marudas, an aide to the mayor, said "we hadn't counted heads, yet." He did concede the initiative for the compromise came from certain council members.

"It's a reasonable compromise," said Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, who introduced the legislation at the behest of the municipal fire unions. "The mayor doesn't have to veto it and we don't have to go through an override vote."

Clarke said the bill will be kept alive in case the Fire Board does not live up to the policy. If the measure is not resurrected, it will die in December 1991 when the current four-year term of the council expires.

"We didn't want a fight with the mayor and we didn't want a legal battle," said Clarke, who advised the council to monitor the policy. "We wanted four-person work crews and that's what we got. It's a win for everybody."

DiBlasi said he and other council members interpret the Fire Board's reaffirmation of the policy to mean there never will be any deviation from four-member crews.

But Glenn said that is not necessarily so.

"The board's policy has always been to operate with four-person crews and that policy has never changed," Glenn said. "We have told the fire unions and the council this over and over again, but if they want us to reaffirm the same policy, we will."

Marudas said Schmoke is committed to the policy of four-member fire crews but "you have to allow for unforeseen exceptions."

Glenn said that if the unforeseen happens, such as the city falling into a severe financial crisis, "we might have to again face the same options we faced back in June."

The Schmoke administration decided last June to reduce the size of fire crews on pumper engines and ladder trucks from four people to three when an additional shift that went into effect June 1 caused a manpower shortage.

Glenn said the options presented to the mayor were to reduce the crews or put fire companies out of service for a period of time.

The unions maintained that the first unit on a fire scene could not safely fight a fire with a three-member crew, thus putting the lives of both firefighters and citizens at risk.

To call back firefighters to man the additional shift would have cost the city $25,000 a day in overtime. The reduced crews were a temporary solution until two fire academy classes graduated enough new firefighters to make up the manpower shortage.

Crews on engines and ladders now are operating at a four-member level during the week, but on a three-member level on weekends and holidays. The mayor has said all work crews should be back to four members by Dec. 8.

Jeffrey A. DeLisle, president of Baltimore Fire Fighters Local 734, said he had mixed feelings about the compromise. He said the bill guaranteed four-member crews and the board's policy does not, "but we will monitor the policy along with the council. Who knows, maybe it will work. If not, we'll be back at war."

The council also learned last night that City Solicitor Neal M. Janey will meet with members to answer legal questions relating to redistricting. Janey initially had refused to appear before the Judiciary Committee at a meeting scheduled for today.

Councilwoman Rochelle Rikki Spector, D-5th, committee chairwoman, said she met briefly with Janey just before last night's council meeting and that he agreed to the meeting. But she said today's meeting would be rescheduled.

Spector said Schmoke told her yesterday to speak to Janey and that he thought the solicitor and the council could work ZTC something out.

The mayor has until Feb. 1 to submit a councilmanic redistricting plan after the 1990 census. The council has until April 1 to approve the plan, amend it or adopt one of its own.

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