Fire chief planning partial shutdowns Instead of stations, truck or engine would be put out of service

October 29, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Two weeks after the Baltimore Fire Department stopped the practice of closing fire stations on a rotating basis, the chief of the financially strapped agency said he would institute partial shutdowns this weekend.

Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. said he has spent more than half his $2 million overtime budget just four months into the fiscal year. "You don't need a crystal ball to know that if we don't take some steps, the money is going to run out," he said.

The decision drew an angry response from Fire Department Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, the president of the fire officers union, who last month said the city was playing "Russian roulette" with people's lives.

"You're rolling the dice," Fugate said yesterday. Williams "is speaking as the administrative head of his department. But he's not out there on the street.

"You can't deny that closing a station will have an adverse effect."

Williams had stopped the closures after a rough few weeks in October during which five people died in three city fires.

Though none of the deaths were attributed to firehouse closures, City Council members expressed concern about safety during a hearing on Oct. 16 and asked Williams to make an appearance at City Hall. That has not been scheduled.

Williams said the closures will start this weekend and will last indefinitely.

Equipment shutdown

Instead of closing down an entire station -- as he did last month -- he will only shut down one truck or engine, thus guaranteeing that at least one piece of equipment would be available in each of the city's 53 stations. The shutdowns would be rotated among fire stations and last only one day.

"That will ensure response time will not change," Williams said, noting that 16 fire engines participated in a terrorism drill yesterday, causing a reshuffling of staff and resources to provide adequate coverage.

"Fire safety was not hampered," the chief said, adding that the same will be true this weekend. "To say otherwise would be irresponsible."

Williams said his budget is in dire straits because up to 50 firefighters are taking vacations at the same time and an incentive program to keep potential retirees on the job longer is expiring.

The chief said he expects 100 firefighters to retire by June, but 15 are gone, having accumulated enough vacation and sick leave to leave early.

That means the Fire Department has to pay them for the next seven months, even though they are not working.

"For every day one of these people is supposedly working, it's overtime," Williams said.

Reinforcements coming

A class of recruits is expected to begin training on Nov. 9, and fire officials plan to put them on a "fast-track" to be hired as apprentices and place them on the street by December.

But Fugate said the department has only approved 20 trainees; another 40 slots remain open and might not be filled in time for the start date of the classes.

While Williams maintains that there is no need for citizens to worry, Fugate warned city residents to "be careful."

"We can't be on every street corner. Now we can't be in every station house."

Pub Date: 10/29/98

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