Despite last-minute opposition from high-ranking fire officers, the Baltimore County Council approved last night an early retirement plan that paves the way for a major reorganization of the Fire Department.
Council members voted 6-1 to offer a modest retirement incentive package to battalion chiefs and deputy chiefs, improving their pensions by about $2,000 a year and allowing them to retire with 20 years of service regardless of age.
Fire Chief John O'Neill has supported the plan as a way to trim the department's upper ranks. O'Neill wants to reduce the number of battalion chiefs from 30 to 15, and the number of deputy chiefs from five to two.
For years, the department has been criticized for having too many high-ranking officers.
Council members approved the plan only after receiving assurances that no layoffs would result even if the retirement goals were not met.
Before last night's meeting, about 20 members of the organization that represents battalion and deputy chiefs met with council members and expressed concern about the impending reorganization.
With the number of fire areas being cut from five to three, it could take longer for ranking officers to arrive at the scene of a blaze, especially in more rural areas of the county, they said.
"This is the most ridiculous change I've seen since 1953," said Wayne Thayer, a former fire lieutenant who retired in 1987 after 34 years.
Those concerns were echoed by several council members, including Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a North County-Owings Mills Republican, who said, "I find it difficult to comprehend how three chiefs can take care of an area that is more than 600 square miles."
Deputy Chief John Homan said new staffing plans were still being drafted, with a final decision expected on March 21.