The Baltimore Fire Department will have to continue operating at times with reduced crews on most fire units through the rest of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, or face overtime costs that could reach $2 million over budget.
That was the message Fire Chief Peter J. O'Connor handed to a group of City Council members during a meeting yesterday on the department's manning problems.
The department already has racked up about a $1 million overtime deficit, including $300,000 in December alone, O'Connor said.
The council was looking for answers as to why the department resumed using three-person crews a month after it had acquiesced to council demands that the normal four-person crews be restored.
Because of a new reduced work week that went into effect last June, the department, with the backing of Mayor Kurt Schmoke, went to three-person crews through November because it didn't have enough personnel to fill the new work schedule.
The council unanimously passed a bill that would require four-person crews, but it rescinded its action after fire officials said the situation would be alleviated with the graduation of another fire academy class in early December.
Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, called the overtime overruns "outrageous," especially given the fact the department operated with three-person crews from June through November.
O'Connor and Edward J. Gallagher, the city budget chief, said the reason for the overtime problems had little to do with NTC inadequate personnel numbers, but was the fault of fire personnel using more vacation time than anticipated. That resulted in the need to call firefighters and officers back to work on an overtime basis.
The fire chief said that, under contract provisions with the fire unions, the department has virtually no flexibility in denying vacation requests.
Fire union officials claimed that vacation days are scheduled far in advance and should be anticipated.
"The problem is that the city never adequately funded for the additional positions needed to cover all shifts with a reduced work week that went into effect last June," said Jeffrey A. DeLisle, president of Fire Fighters Local 734.
Firefighters went from a 47-hour work week to a 44-hour-a-week schedule, which the city agreed to in the 1988 contract negotiations.
DeLisle said he suspected the city consciously decided not to provide money for the new personnel, but decided to try to handle the problem with overtime pay, and, if that failed, to reduce the fire crews.
It was a suspicion shared by some council members.
"What would be the cost of hiring more personnel to cover the reduced work week vs. the cost of paying overtime?" asked Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, D-5th.
O'Connor said he couldn't immediately provide those figures.
When Council President Mary Pat Clarke asked Gallagher if the city intends to fund the department adequately for fiscal year 1992 to run all crews with four people, the budget chief said that was a policy decision the mayor would have to address.
Schmoke said yesterday that he felt the fire unions and the fire chief need to talk about the fact that the work rules that have been in effect for 20 years or longer and re-negotiated in recent contracts "may not be feasible now given the city's financial problems."
The current contracts with fire fighters' and fire officers' unions runs until July 1992.
Clarke said that further meetings will be held on the problem, but council members seemed resigned to the fact three-person crews will have to be used at times during the rest of the fiscal year.