Baltimore stops rotating closing of fire stations Council plans to go ahead with hearings on safety

October 17, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Fire Department has quietly ended the controversial practice of closing city fire stations on a rotating basis, one week after four city residents died in separate fires.

A spokesman for Baltimore Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. confirmed yesterday that the chief ordered the practice stopped on Wednesday. The Sun reported last month that the city was closing two stations per day for up to 14 hours because the department was exceeding overtime costs.

Williams ordered an end to the closings a day after City Council members called for a meeting with fire officials to examine whether the closings placed lives and property at risk.

Last week, four residents were killed in two separate fires, including a mother and two children. A firetruck malfunctioned, causing a slight delay in water being poured on a fire Saturday night in West Baltimore. The blaze in the 1000 block of N. Payson St. killed a 62-year-old woman and injured a fire captain who was pulled to safety after trying to rescue the woman.

Although the rotation did not appear to play a role in the deaths or problems, the combination of closed stations and deadly fires worried council members.

"The mere fact that there was a malfunction and resulting delay sends chills down the spine of every Baltimore City resident who must ask the question: What about next time?" Council Vice President Agnes Welch said.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke defends the department, saying that he is certain that city fire protection is sufficient. "This has been a bad fire protection month for us," Schmoke said.

Last year, Baltimore led the state with 24 fire deaths.

But the city's fire fatalities have been historical lows over the past few years, Schmoke noted. This year, the number of city fire deaths stands at 30.

Over the past decade, Baltimore has significantly cut its firefighting ranks by 250 -- 12 percent -- to adjust to the city's loss of population.

"We've had to right-size our Fire Department," Schmoke said. "What we've done in the Fire Department makes a lot of sense."

Fire union leaders have complained that the cuts are starting to endanger firefighters and citizens and make little economic sense. Commanders have already spent half the department's $2 million overtime budget two months into the fiscal year.

The department paid overtime to fill gaps caused by 30 vacancies. Up to 60 firefighters a day were being paid overtime to keep firehouses staffed.

All the stations needed to respond to the fire on Saturday were staffed and responded. But firefighters worry that the city is coming closer to responding more slowly because of staffing shortages.

"It's a roll of the dice," said Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the fire officers union, who was rescued from last week's fire and carried burn scars on his left ear. "All the companies that were supposed to be there were there, but that's not good enough."

He said the fires could have occurred in a neighborhood where stations were closed.

On Wednesday, the city Board of Estimates passed a $2.3 million supplemental budget measure that will allow the department to begin training 100 new firefighters. But the city is expected to lose as many retiring firefighters next summer when three-year pension incentive expires.

Despite the hirings and Williams' order to stop closing stations, Welch said she intends to hold the council hearing on fire protection to find out what's going on in the city fire department. No date has been set for the hearing.

"There needs to be some communication," Welch said.

Pub Date: 10/17/98

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