Overtime costs force city to shutter some firehouses Buildings are closed up to 14 hours

officials deny safety hazard

September 25, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF Sun Staff writer Devon Spurgeon contributed to this article.

Having spent half its yearly overtime budget in just two months, the Baltimore Fire Department is closing stations for up to 14 hours at a time, prompting accusations that fiscal constraints might cost lives.

The closures -- which began about a month ago and usually affect two stations a day -- mean trucks costing taxpayers a half million dollars each sit idle behind locked firehouse doors.

"This is unbelievable," said Patricia Gallagher, who manages an apartment complex for the elderly in Federal Hill and was angry to discover her neighborhood station at Light and Montgomery street was closed yesterday.

"The firefighters are always sitting outside and the doors are open," Gallagher said. "What are the seniors going to do? We rely on these firefighters all the time. They know everyone at my place."

Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. adamantly defends the practice and accuses union officials, who contend the closures pose a safety risk, of using scare tactics. He said the closures could cease as early as next week when two dozen new hires complete their training and fill slots now covered with overtime.

"At no time is fire protection compromised in this city," Williams said, adding that fire engines can quickly reach every part of Baltimore regardless of the closures.

The chief said he has to manage fire coverage for the entire city, not on a station-by-station basis. From a management standpoint, he said, there is no difference between a fire engine that is out of service getting fuel or responding to a fire and one that is shut down for budget reasons.

"Closed is closed," he said. "There is no distinction. I have to look at the totality of service. Where do firehouses need to be?"

But Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, the president of the fire officers union and a frequent critic of Williams, called the closures a travesty. "They are playing Russian roulette with fire stations," he said. "In my mind, it's criminal. They are gambling with people's lives."

It is the third year in a row that the Fire Department has cut back on service because of scarce funds. Williams closed a West Baltimore station permanently in 1996 after exhausting a year's worth of overtime money in three months.

Fire commanders said they have spent half the department's $2 million overtime budget two months into this fiscal year, and they say savings are needed for the winter months when more fires typically occur. Their total budget is $94 million.

The department said it paid overtime to train 1,400 firefighters in a new $60 million communications system and to fill gaps caused by 30 vacancies. Up to 60 firefighters a day were being paid overtime to keep firehouses staffed.

In addition to the new hires starting next week, officials are expected to begin interviewing for more training classes on Monday. An incentive program to keep veterans on the job expires soon, and the department expects to lose more than 100 experienced firefighters starting next month.

Williams said he had no choice but to shut stations or truck and engine companies. But he said the closures are carefully made to ensure there are no breaks in fire protection. Baltimore has 53 fire stations housing 22 ladder trucks and 41 pump engines.

Baltimore County Battalion Chief Mark Hubbard said his department has more engines but fewer trucks. But he was not willing to draw comparisons between the two jurisdictions, saying that staffing is the most difficult job for any fire chief.

"If we had our way, we would have a fire engine on every street corner," he said. "But that would not be fiscally responsible. It's about managing risk. And it's difficult to decide what is an acceptable risk. There is always disagreement."

In fact, a study released in May criticized city government for being bloated. The Calvert Institute singled out the Fire Department, saying its work force was 47 percent larger than departments in cities of comparable size.

Fire unions criticized the study, noting that while Baltimore's population has decreased from about 736,000 to 670,000 in the past eight years, the number of calls for fire trucks has gone up, from 45,000 in 1990 to 66,000 this year. The numbers do not include calls for ambulances.

Yesterday, Bill Taylor, president of the fire union that represents firefighters, offered a simple solution to end the closings: "What we need to do is hire people. We feel that this situation is temporary. If we can get these hires on board, this will go away."

Fire officials in Baltimore are closing single-bay stations that contain either one engine or truck company, effectively shutting them down from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

At night, they close one truck or engine company in a multi-bay station. That means firefighters may be able to drive out the engine -- which supplies water -- but not the truck, which has the ladders and equipment needed to ventilate a building and perform rescues.

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