Baltimore fire officials, faced with runaway overtime costs that drained the city treasury of $302,000 in December alone, have resorted to sending short-staffed fire engines on emergency runs.
The extensive use of three-member crews on fire engines -- one fewer than the normal four-member contingent -- comes less than two months after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke vowed that four-member crews would be standard operating procedure in the city.
City firefighters have said that operating with fewer than four men is dangerous because a three-man crew would have to wait for help to arrive before making a rescue from a burning building.
"We are very concerned that the citizens of Baltimore and our people are at undue risk," said Jeffrey DeLisle, president of Baltimore Fire Fighters Local 734.
"People are going to get hurt as a result of this. It's going to happen. It's just a matter of when," Mr. DeLisle said.
Last Saturday, 24 of the city's 42 engine companies made their night-shift runs with three-member crews, according to Captain Flynn.
On Sunday, 18 engine crews were short-staffed during the night shift, he said.
City Fire Chief Peter J. O'Connor said yesterday that he had no choice but to order the smaller crews because his department spent virtually its entire yearly budget for overtime -- $302,000 -- during December to cover for vacationing or sick firefighters.
On Christmas Day alone, the city spent $27,000 on overtime.
City fire officials deny that safety is compromised by operating with smaller crews. They say that other cities operate with
three-member engine crews and that backup crews arrive within minutes in the event of a fire.
A spokesman for the mayor, asked to seek comment from Mr. Schmoke, did not return a reporter's phone call yesterday afternoon.
The heavy expenditures shocked members of the City Council, which would have to authorize a supplementary expenditure to keep the department running should the unexpectedly high overtime costs overwhelm the Fire Department budget.
"It makes no sense that we have run through an entire budget in a single month," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.
Mrs. Clarke said she learned of the Fire Department's budget difficulties late Friday. She said she is disappointed that union and Fire Department officials have not aggressively pursued a solution to the runaway overtime costs.
"I would think this is something that union and management would be meeting around the clock to resolve this," Mrs. Clarke said. "The safety of our citizens and our budget is at stake."
After a contract-mandated reduction in the firefighter workweek last June, fire officials began using three-member crews, prompting an outcry from the City Council. In November, the mayor headed off a City Council bill that would have mandated four-member crews when he voluntarily agreed to staff them at that level.
Although the fire board formally adopted the four-member crew policy last month, it said then that the fire chief would be able to temporarily deploy smaller crews during manpower emergencies.
Yesterday, Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, said the council might consider resurrecting the minimum staffing bill.
The decision to go to three-member crews surprised and irked key members of the council, who said they were annoyed with the chief for not having informed them of the soaring overtime costs.
"The chief has been reluctant to come to the council directly, and we've had to rely on the people in the street," Mrs. Clarke said.
The Fire Department budgeted $315,000 this year to cover overtime for the city's roughly 1,650 firefighters, according to spokesman Capt. Patrick P. Flynn.
In the past, the department avoided the high overtime costs by hiring extra firefighters who filled in for vacationing or sick firefighers. That began to change about two years ago, when the department began doing away with the so-called "floater" positions to save money.
But the cost-cutting strategy apparently backfired.
Fire officials said they failed to account for the broad latitude firefighters have in scheduling vacations. In past contract negotiations, the union won for its members the ability to choose vacation time with little need for the consent of their superiors.