Rotation closings contradict fire policy S. Baltimore residents,unions concerned by shift shutdowns

April 25, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Contradicting previous assertions, the Baltimore Fire Department has been closing single-company fire stations during the day as part of its effort to reduce overtime costs, alarming some South Baltimore residents.

When the Fire Department began rotating engines and trucks out of service for some shifts in February, officials said they would close only one of two four-member companies in so-called "double stations," where there is a company for an engine, which extinguishes the fire, and a company for a truck, which performs search and rescue.

The strategy was part of the department's effort to reduce overtime while keeping at least one company on duty in every station. Firefighters from the closed companies were then reassigned to other stations to avoid calling in off-duty workers and paying them overtime.

But from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Truck 6, the lone company at the fire station at Hanover and Ostend streets, was out of service. And during Tuesday's day shift, Truck 13, the only equipment at the 43 S. Carey St. station, was closed, the Fire Department acknowledged.

Battalion Chief Hector Torres, a Fire Department spokesman, maintained yesterday that there has been no change in the department policy against the closing of single-company fire stations.

The closures of Trucks 6 and 13 were "oversights," he said. He offered no explanation but promised the situation would not recur.

Last night, Locust Point Civic Association members discussed the closing of Truck 6, the only truck company within easy reach of their neighborhood. Residents said they were worried because of the fire risks posed by the grain elevators, railroad cars and industrial activities in Locust Point.

As firefighters' representatives explained that single stations were being closed, residents gasped. The association's president, Joyce Bauerle, urged members to write the mayor and City Council. "We're very upset about this," she said.

Firefighters said in recent interviews that they no longer trust the statements of Chief Torres or the department's top administrators.

In February, Chief Torres said that, at most, two pieces of apparatus would be shut down on each shift. But he said yesterday that the department is now closing four different companies -- generally two trucks and two engines -- on each shift.

He said the closings are necessary because the department is $2.5 million over its budget for overtime for this fiscal year. "There is this overtime deficit that we have to deal with," he said.

"They're cutting it close," Capt. Stephan Fugate, secretary-treasurer of the fire officers union, said of the change. "It's just a matter of time before something happens and we get caught."

Bill Taylor, president of the firefighters union, accused department administrators of "spinning a cylinder and trying to predict where there's not going to be a fire so they can close companies there."

"That's not going to work," he said.

Union officials say that rotation closings have hurt response times. At 8: 15 p.m. March 22, it took 12 minutes for a truck to respond to a house fire in Brooklyn because the Truck 21 company at Maude Street and Fifth Street in Brooklyn was closed for that shift, firefighters said. Instead, Truck 13 and Truck 23, at 1229 Bush St. in the Pigtown area, responded. Residents had been trapped in the house, but no injuries were reported.

City Councilwoman Lois Garey, whose 1st District includes Locust Point, said she is "very concerned" about the rotating closures, especially of single stations such as Truck 6.

"I'm very worried about the Locust Point people," she said. "We're doing these closings in an area that is heavily industrial."

Chief Torres said the public should not be alarmed. Fire stations are left empty whenever a big fire requires companies from several areas to respond, he said. For example, he said, on Tuesday, simultaneous fires on Hamburg Street and Fort Avenue forced the department to call in companies from Northeast Baltimore, leaving some neighborhoods temporarily without equipment.

"We have limited resources," he said. "It's not like we can put a fire engine on every corner of every street."

Pub Date: 4/25/96

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