Baltimore fire officials have drawn up plans to dismiss more than 200 firefighters and eliminate as many as 14 fire companies to comply with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's order to pare $3 million from the Fire Department budget.
"It will kill us," said David L. Glenn, president of the Board of Fire Commissioners.
"The city is going to be put in dire straits in terms of fire protection."
If implemented, the layoffs would be the first in the Fire Department's history, according to fire officials.
Mayor Schmoke said yesterday that he could not comment on the specifics of the Fire Department plan -- scheduled to be presented at a meeting of the fire board today -- because he has not seen it. But he acknowledged that he can no longer spare the Fire Department from the kinds of layoffs that have buffeted other city agencies.
"It's very clear the Fire Department cannot be exempted from this process this time around," Mr. Schmoke said.
Mr. Schmoke promised to meet with the heads of the two unions representing firefighters and fire officers before deciding on possible personnel cuts or firehouse closings.
"There has been no decision to lay off anyone yet," the mayor said, but added: "In talking to the chief and the heads of the two unions I've indicated we've got to downsize the agency."
The Fire Department recommendations are due on the mayor's desk on Monday, and administration officials hope to put a budget cutting plan in place by Dec. 1.
Until this year, the Fire Department, along with the Police Department and the school system, have been relatively safe from pressures to cut spending in the face of the city's fiscal crisis. Thus the proposals to cut the fire budget -- and cutbacks for the Police Department which presumably are on the way -- could prove to be politically explosive.
Three years ago, Mr. Schmoke incensed neighborhood groups when he closed four fire companies in Locust Point, Ridgely's Delight, Highlandtown and Penn North.
The proposed Fire Department layoffs are the latest indication of the extent to which city services will suffer as a result of the $21 million cut in state aid ordered by Gov. William Donald Schaefer two weeks ago as a way of closing a $450 million state budget gap. Already, plans have been announced to close nearly half the branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, fire all 19 city restaurant and food inspectors, slash 103 positions from school nursing services and eliminate 315 beds from alcohol and drug treatment programs that receive city money.
Mr. Glenn disclosed the possible Fire Department layoffs
yesterday afternoon, after meeting with Fire Chief Peter J. O'Connor and several deputy chiefs to determine how to minimize the impact of the cuts on the department's firefighting abilities. Fire Department budget officials are scheduled to detail three separate budget-cutting scenarios before the three-member fire board today at a 10 a.m. public meeting at the Fire Department headquarters at the War Memorial Plaza.
Later in the week, the board plans to meet in a closed-door executive session to narrow the choices before forwarding specific recommendations to the mayor Oct. 21. During the executive meeting, board members are expected to take up the ticklish issue of which firehouses to recommend for closing.
Mr. Glenn said that the fire department staff recommendation included a plan to pare the number of firefighters and ambulance workers by downgrading ranks, beginning at the level of battalion chief. Officers in higher ranks would take the jobs of lower-ranking fire officials, forcing out firefighters and ambulance workers on the lowest rungs of the ladder.
Fire officials said that unless the mayor can be persuaded to change his mind about requiring the department to save $3 million, draconian cuts among fire personnel are unavoidable because salaries and other personnel costs make up about 90 percent of the $93 million Fire Department budget.
But the sharp personnel cuts could exacerbate scheduling problems for the already short-staffed fire department, which frequently must call in firefighters on overtime to fill crews when it is short-handed, at a cost of millions of dollars per year. Already, the agency often sends out three-member crews, one fewer than the normal four-member contingent.
The Fire Department currently has slots for 1,583 firefighters, 54 fire boat crew members and 174 ambulance personnel. But not all of the positions are filled: the agency has 43 vacancies among firefighters, plus another 11 in its marine division.
Mr. Glenn said that such a loss could seriously undermine public safety by slowing response times to fires and by allowing fires that might otherwise be inconsequential to grow to larger, deadlier ones.
He said that the Fire Department is unlike other agencies because it is still responsible for protecting the same number of buildings and covering the same distance along city streets even though the population has declined by about 250,000 from its peak of about 1 million.
"It's damage to the Fire Department that is almost beyond repair," Mr. Glenn said.
"You can't look at the Fire Department like a bus line, where you can eliminate routes when ridership is down."