Money goes to stadium, while fire unit makes cuts


March 22, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

Pardon the juxtaposition of the following facts, but I can't resist: The Maryland General Assembly has authorized $200 million to build a stadium for Baltimore's new football team while the city Fire Department has been taking equipment out of service to stem overtime and fill staffing gaps.

Here we are, squeezing nickels and dimes for public safety while building expensive playgrounds for millionaires.

If you haven't heard of this development in Fire Department policy, don't sweat. There hasn't been much media coverage of it (although a City Council committee conducted exploratory surgery on the matter March 13) and the Fire Department hasn't exactly launched a public education campaign.

But since late February, the department has taken two pieces of equipment (an engine or truck) out of service on each shift and reassigned the four-man crews to understaffed stations somewhere in the city.

No station has been fully closed; the policy affects only "double houses" stations with more than one unit and only one unit at a time has been taken out of service.

This eliminates the need to call back off-duty firefighters and pay them overtime. The department is trying to save money because it's facing a $2.5 million budget shortfall, according to City Councilwoman Joan Carter Conway, who's been after Fire Chief Herman Williams for more information about the policy.

Information such as: What units are out of service and when? Are the selections made randomly or by a formula? If so, what's the formula?

"They never notified the public of this policy," says Conway. "A positive marketing strategy would have informed the citizenry of the present situation and the department's dilemma."

Both the firefighter and fire officer unions have criticized the policy not because it eliminates overtime, but because they see it as a threat to public safety. They claim, for instance, that taking Engine 27 out of service, at Mannasota Avenue and Brehms Lane in Northeast Baltimore, caused a delay in response to a Feb. 24 fire at a nearby apartment building on Moravia Road.

"I think they're playing a game of Russian roulette with this policy," says Dean Muscello, first vice president of the Fire Officers Association.

"Common sense and common knowledge tell you that this practice has to have a negative impact," Conway says. "If you take an engine or truck out of service, and you have to go to another station to get one to respond to a fire, you can't tell me the response time won't be longer."

The Fire Department is understaffed and, budgetwise, it has been through a long, rough winter. Chief Williams has every right to demand more dough to keep his department fully staffed and ready to fight fires the right way. Maybe he should ask the governor for help. He said yes to Art Modell, and yes to Jack Kent Cooke. How could he say no to Herman Williams?

Do your part

Bumper sticker on a car in Columbia: "Support search & rescue. GET LOST!"

Car held for ransom

Rich Ramirez, an Army staff sergeant from Aberdeen Proving Ground, came to Baltimore last December to attend one of those dare-to-be-great seminars at a downtown hotel. The seminar ran the first three days of December a Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Instead of driving back to APG each night, Rich stayed at a home in Hampden, left his Oldsmobile parked (legally) on 36th Street and got lifts downtown.

When the seminar ended and Rich returned to Hampden late Sunday night, Dec. 3, he couldn't find his Olds. He thought it had been stolen.

In fact, the city had towed it off Sunday morning to make way for the Hampden Christmas Parade that afternoon. Such "courtesy relocations" are standard practice for cars parked before those "no parking/parade today" signs go up.

But here's the problem: Ramirez's car was towed to a bus stop.

And then it was cited for being parked illegally. Then it was towed to the city's abandoned vehicle lot. To get his car back, Ramirez forked over $204 in fees and fines. That's a ransom he never should have paid. Good luck trying to get it back, sarge.

If you can't say something nice

Here are some of the words readers have used to describe me after my report in Monday's column that this year's Baltimore Symphony Decorators' Show House was the site of a double homicide in 1994: "Disgusting, destructive, sinister, sensationalistic, appalling, ruinous, a low blow, cynical, ugly." I could go on, so I will: "Hateful, morose, insensitive, embarrassing, shameful, shocking, warped, twisted, brutal, irresponsible." And my favorite: "Not nice." Guess I'll skip the press preview party.

This Just In appears each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Send musings, observations and refrigerator magnets to Dan Rodricks, The Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. The phone number is 332-6166.

Pub Date: 3/22/96

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