Beth Steel opposes station plan

Firefighters' transfer would jeopardize workers, union says

Balto. Co. defends move

Officials say inactivity justifies change at Sparrows Point facility

April 26, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's plan to move all firefighters out of the Sparrows Point Fire Station this summer has angered union and management officials at Bethlehem Steel Corp., who say the move would jeopardize the safety of up to 8,500 workers.

Ruppersberger's budget, unveiled last week, calls for transferring the fire engine, the ladder truck and the 40 firefighters assigned to them from Sparrows Point, but keeping eight paramedics at the station around the clock.

County fire officials say the station -- owned by Bethlehem Steel and inside the Sparrows Point complex -- has had fewer fire calls than any Baltimore County fire facility.

Calls to Sparrows Point will be handled by stations a few miles away in Dundalk, North Point and Edgemere without jeopardizing safety at Bethlehem Steel, said Baltimore County Fire Chief John F. O'Neill.

"People like to think of the engine company in their neighborhood as their engine company, as the neighborhood fire station, as their station. But in this day and age, we don't address firefighting in terms of it being a local issue. We have to address the needs of the whole county, the whole fire system," O'Neill said.

He said the move is being made because contracts negotiated with the firefighters union this spring allow the department to transfer firefighters July 1 for the first time in several years.

Bethlehem Steel officials have lobbied the County Council and written to Ruppersberger asking him to keep the firefighters at Sparrows Point. They say the transfers will increase the risk for the 8,500 people who work for the county's largest private employer at Sparrows Point.

"We're taxpayers, and taxpayers should get fire protection for our tax dollars," said Sharon Snyder, real estate coordinator for Bethlehem Steel and the company's liaison with the Fire Department.

The Sparrows Point station was staffed by Bethlehem Steel-employed firefighters until 1988. At that time, the county agreed to take over the Sparrows Point station and eliminate $3 million in annual utility taxes, in exchange for more than 400 acres of Bethlehem Steel land scattered among six sites, including the 26-acre site of the fire station.

The county has yet to take title to the acreage because of concerns about its environmental condition, county officials said.

Snyder said Bethlehem Steel would have a difficult time re-establishing its firefighting unit because it gave Baltimore County its firetrucks and eliminated its 50-member Fire Department as part of the 1988 agreement.

"It never occurred to us that we would ever lose this service," she said.

Sparrows Point union officials say the closest fire station, in Edgemere, is 2.5 miles away and that the trip from Edgemere along winding, two-lane roads will double the response time for fire calls to about seven minutes.

"The business that we're in is inherently dangerous. You have explosions down there, you have hot metal burning at 2,900 degrees. And the point is that the fire equipment will be too far away," said Joseph J. Rosel Jr., a former Bethlehem Steel firefighter who represents 4,000 Sparrows Point workers as president of United Steelworkers of America, Local 4727.

Art Williamson, who retired in February as Bethlehem Steel's senior supervisor for health and safety, said the Sparrows Point plant is safer than it was a few years ago, but should have on-site fire protection.

"A minute can make the difference between a small contained oil fire and an entire mill going up in flames," Williamson recently told the County Council.

In a letter to Bethlehem Steel officials, Ruppersberger and county fire officials said transferring the firefighters was necessary to ensure quality fire service countywide.

The April 14 letter, signed by Ruppersberger, O'Neill and firefighter union President Kevin B. O'Connor, included statistics showing that Sparrows Point dispatched its fire engine and its ladder truck an average of about once a day last year.

The station's engines responded to 393 calls last year. Its ladder truck -- called out for rescue operations and major structural fires -- was sent out 358 times, according to the letter.

Fire officials said that by comparison, the county's busiest fire stations handle about 2,000 fire engine calls and 100 ladder truck calls each year.

"Acknowledging the changes now proposed will allow continuing professional fire and emergency protection of life and property at Sparrows Point," county officials wrote.

Pub Date: 4/26/99

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