City to close fire station Lack of money cited

year's overtime funds spent in 1st quarter

September 28, 1996|By Peter Hermann and John Rivera | Peter Hermann and John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Only three months into the fiscal year, the city's cash-strapped Fire Department has spent its entire $2 million overtime budget and is shutting down a fire station in West Baltimore today to save money.

The closure is the most drastic measure yet taken by fire officials, who started closing some stations for one shift on a rotating basis last year, drawing complaints that the cost-cutting came at the expense of public safety.

Yesterday's announcement of the immediate, indefinite closing of the station at 401 W. North Ave. -- a brown brick building opened in 1901 that sits next to an Interstate 83 on-ramp -- brought immediate condemnation from union officials.

"If there are two fires in that vicinity, somebody is going to suffer greatly," said Bill Taylor, president of Firefighters Union, Local 734. Taylor said he wants to meet with Major Kurt L. Schmoke on the issue.

But fire officials insisted that residents will receive adequate fire protection. The nearest stations are six blocks from the North Avenue station.

Yesterday afternoon, firefighters sat on old couches in the back of the fire station, sipping soda and watching a program on the History Channel as they prepared to start their last night on duty there. The building is in poor repair, but it still has some nice touches, like tin ceilings and a brass pole to slide down from the second floor.

The mood was dark, and there was grumbling about the decision to close the firehouse, but none of the firefighters wanted to talk openly.

"This is permanent," one firefighter said. "You're never going to

see this station open again."

The closure comes at a time when the department is struggling to provide basic service. Despite a drop in the city's population, the number of fire calls has increased by nearly 50 percent in the past six years.

During that same period, the average time it takes the first truck or engine to arrive at a fire scene has doubled, from 1 1/2 minutes to about three minutes. And since 1990, the number of fire employees -- now 1,300 -- has decreased 15 percent.

Not surprising

News that the station was closing was not surprising to area residents and businesses, since it had been rumored for some time. Still, the closing was cause for concern.

Employees of Ditch, Bowers & Taylor, an automobile parts warehouse next door to the firehouse, provided cardboard boxes for the firefighters to pack up their belongings yesterday and even helped them load a soda machine onto a truck with their forklift.

"This is such an old building with a lot of old stuff in it," Bill Schofield said of the parts warehouse, where he works the counter. "If it ever did go up [in flames], it's nice that they were there."

Seniors upset

Around the corner at Bolton North, a 15-story senior citizen apartment complex, residents were unhappy that they were hearing the news of the station's closing from a reporter.

"They still work for us, right?" said Ann Rice, a resident of the housing complex. "They should have come around and let us know what they are doing. This is really important. This is our lives they're dealing with."

"I think it should be open due to the fact that this high-rise is here, and there are several more high-rises in the neighborhood," said her neighbor, Shirley Robinson. "In case of emergency, what would happen to us here? I hope they open it again."

Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. was not available for comment yesterday. A department spokesman said that reopening the station depends on whether the city wants to make $500,000 in building repairs.

No relief in sight

The two closest fire stations are at 405 McMechen St. and 1312 Guilford Ave. Fire officials said that last fiscal year the department's overtime budget was $2.5 million in the red and no relief is in sight for 1996-1997.

"Whenever you've used up a $2 million budget in three months, there has to be an attempt to bring that under control," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a department spokesman. "That's what this move will attempt to do."

Twenty-five firefighters and 10 paramedics will be reassigned to other stations. Aerial Tower 111, a long vehicle that responded to 2,984 calls last year, will be put in reserve. The medic unit will be assigned to the Old Town station.

To help reduce overtime, the fire department plans to fill all its vacancies. Twenty-eight recruits are expected to graduate from the fire academy soon, and a class of 50 will begin training immediately thereafter.

And Schmoke has authorized hiring 10 paramedics. The paramedic shortage has greatly contributed to the fiscal problem. As qualified firefighters have been pulled from trucks to ride ambulances, the department has been forced to call in other firefighters on overtime to staff the stations.

More firefighters

The union says the solution is to hire more firefighters -- not close stations.

"Every three months, they come up with a new hare-brained idea to correct what they didn't correct in the first place," Taylor said. "They want to blame it on everybody but themselves."

The union president accused fire officials of offering only temporary solutions. He said that several years ago, the union negotiated a shorter workweek with the understanding that 110 additional firefighters would be hired to make up the difference.

"We allowed three years for them to implement it," Taylor said.

"They never hired one person. They started cutting companies. The city is again asking the firefighters to pay for something the city promised to do and didn't."

Pub Date: 9/28/96

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