The City Council may seek supplemental funds to hire more firefighters and paramedics to solve overtime and manpower crises in the fire department.
Council members met yesterday with fire union leaders the day after a fire department lieutenant died of a heart attack while working with a three-person crew on a fire engine.
Fire Chief Peter J. O'Connor last week told the council that the department already has racked up about a $1 million overtime deficit this fiscal year.
The chief said that even with operating fire engines and trucks with three-person crews instead of the normal four-person crews, the overtime deficit could reach $2 million by June.
O'Connor said the problem was in firefighters taking more vacation time than expected after a reduced work week went into effect last June.
Union officials told the council the overtime problem had nothing do with vacation time but with the understaffed of the department.
"To man all positions 24 hours a day for our 44-hour work week, we are down 100 firefighters," said Jeffrey A. DeLisle, president of Fire Fighters Local 734.
Department officials have said they were short only 37 firefighters. But DeLisle said that reflected 37 short of what has been budgeted.
"The city budget office never approved money for enough personnel to keep up with normal attrition, let alone the 137 additional personnel needed to cover the new shorter work week," DeLisle told council members.
DeLisle also said that the department's emergency medical service is short 50 paramedics.
"So when a two-member medic unit is short a paramedic, a firefighter is detailed to ride the ambulance, adding to the shortage among firefighters available to fight fires," DeLisle said.
Council President Mary Pat Clarke blasted the city budget office, saying that "when finance runs a public safety agency it causes this kind of problem."
Council members agreed that the council should approve the use of supplemental appropriations to hire more paramedics and firefighters rather than for overtime deficits.
Supplemental appropriations originate through the city Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Mayor Kurt Schmoke.
Figures provided to the council indicated that it would cost about the same to hire 100 new fire personnel as it would to continue paying overtime.
DeLisle and Capt. John Seiss, president of Fire Officers Local 964, stopped short yesterday of blaming Lt. John Plummer's death Sunday night on the fact his engine was operating with only three crew members.
Plummer, 47, assigned to Engine Company 23, died at the University of Maryland Medical Center after having an apparent heart attack while fighting a fire at a rowhouse in the 800 block of W. Lombard St., according to police.
Seiss noted that, because of reports that people were trapped in the burning building, Plummer decided to attack the fire by himself instead of waiting for help.
Plummer took a heavy hose into the building and tried to put out the fire by himself. With a four-person crew, another firefighter would have helped Plummer take the hose into the building and put water on the fire.
Fire unions have argued three-person crews are unsafe. Department officials said that is untrue.
The size of fire crews were decreased from four to three in June when it became apparent there weren't enough personnel to cover the shorter work week. Overtime costs skyrocketed.
The mayor said the reduced-crews policy was only temporary until two new fire academy classes graduated. In December, the crews were back to the four-person level, but overtime costs amounted to over $300,000 for that month alone.
But the other $600,000 in overtime overruns came between June and December, when the crews were operating with only three people.
This month, some fire units have been operating with three-person crews, mainly on weekends.