Firefighter staffing plan termed unsafe

April 30, 1991|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Evening Sun Staff

Baltimore County fire union leader John J. Hohman is charging a plan by County Executive Roger Hayden's administration to cut overtime costs by dispersing on-duty crews instead of calling in off-duty firefighters could hurt public safety.

Hohman has scheduled a meeting of Baltimore County Firefighters Association Inc. Local 1311, representing nearly all 1,100 county firefighters and paramedics, for Thursday evening at Timonium Fairgrounds to talk about stalled contract talks with the county.

The union leader said the union wanted to discuss the county's proposal on the overtime issue but that county negotiators refused.

The union wanted a clause in the contract guaranteeing that engines and ambulances would remain in service at all times in communities where they are assigned.

Fire Chief Elwood H. Banister has said that he plans to cut overtime costs by taking equipment out of service when vacancies occur and sending the crews to plug personnel holes at other stations. Currently, he said, the department calls off-duty firefighters back to work when staffing levels fall too low because of vacations, illness or other factors. These people are paid overtime. He said the new practice will not affect safety.

The current county budget allowed $155,000 for this type of call-back overtime, but a budget analyst said the department has spent only about $60,000 of that money so far, with two months to go until the fiscal year ends.

"By not guaranteeing that equipment will remain in service and available in their respective communities for emergency calls, firefighters and paramedics will have to wait longer for assistance on an emergency scene," Hohman said in a prepared statement.

Hohman said, for example, that if one of two engines in Dundalk were taken out of service, and the other engine was called out and then needed assistance, it would take longer for help to arrive from nearby Edgemere. If a medic unit is taken out of service, the delay could be as long as five minutes for an ambulance to come from a neighboring community, he said.

Banister, however, said there would be no more risk under the new policy than when engines are taken out of service so crews may attend training -- a practice in the county for many years.

Minimal delays might occur in some cases, but firefighters would be instructed to keep strategic equipment in service, he said.

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