Can't skimp on fire protection City budget: Must address manpower and equipment woes in the fire department.

June 02, 1996

GAMBLING WITH LIVES is the only way to describe the juggling of shifts and equipment occurring within the Baltimore Fire Department. There's no better example of the need for city government to undergo the necessary streamlining that would allow it to spend its meager resources where they are needed most, providing essential services that ensure the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Baltimore.

No stop-gap revenue measure should deter Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the City Council from making tough decisions about where tax money would be best spent. In making their choices, it should be clear that fire protection must be a priority. The current department policy of "rotation closures," in which two fire trucks and two fire engines are shut down each shift to save money, must come to an end.

The city may have lost 45,000 residents since 1990, but there has been no corresponding reduction in the need for fire protection. Quite the contrary, many of the old vacant buildings in the city are more susceptible to fire. The number of calls handled by city firefighters actually increased from 69,665 in 1990 to 101,968 in 1995. But the increased number of emergencies is being handled by fewer firefighters; 1,411 currently compared to 1,664 six years ago.

The firefighters union says the response time to a call now averages 3 minutes, compared to 1 1/2 minutes six years ago. Department records obtained by The Sun indicate more than half of the city's 38 "front-line" fire engines fail to meet the industry standard for pumping water -- 1,250 gallons per minute.

The mayor's proposed budget would give the fire department the same $86 million it received in fiscal 1996. With that level of funding, Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. says he can use computer models to "juggle" the locations of city fire companies to improve emergency response times. That's too big of a gamble to take in a fire emergency. The budget approved by the City Council should emphasize the need to keep the number of firefighters stable and provide the department with all the tools it needs to do its job by saving lives and property.

Pub date: 6/02/96

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