Fire Department management cuts criticized

Balto. County to trim on-duty battalion chiefs, sparking safety debate

March 28, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Fire Department will slash its upper management this week despite strong criticism from current and retired officials that the reorganization will dangerously delay the arrival of commanding officers at fires.

In a cost-saving move designed to shift money from top management to emergency medical services, Baltimore County will be divided into three fire districts starting April 1, rather than five. That means only three field battalion chiefs will be on duty at any time.

Top department officials concede that it will take longer for battalion chiefs to respond to working fires, where they assume command as ranking officers. They downplay the importance of the change, saying that captains and lieutenants, who almost always arrive first, are equally qualified to handle incidents.

"We don't think the time delay will be significant, and [it] will not impact public safety," said Deputy Chief John J. Hohman.

But the changes are stirring debate among many who have spent decades in the Fire Department and who say the county needs more districts, not fewer.

"We're going back in staffing to what we had in 1970," said Elwood H. Banister, who retired in 1994 after four years as fire chief and 38 years in the department. "Your chiefs are the coordinators of the incidents. When you are talking 610 square miles and three battalion chiefs, the area to cover is too great, and they are just not going to be able to do it.

"Not only will it jeopardize the safety of [the department's] own personnel, but the safety of the citizens," he said.

Despite those concerns, the Fire Department's upper management is about to be cut nearly in half.

The department has 34 deputy and battalion chief positions in its budget. Four positions remain vacant, and, as of yesterday, 11 officers had accepted an incentive package to retire early. That's two short of a target set by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. The retirement incentive was approved by the County Council last month.

Ruppersberger administration officials say that bloated staffing levels of battalion chiefs and deputy chiefs have been a problem for years. The early retirements were designed to save $825,000 in payroll costs, which officials plan to spend on additional emergency medical units.

The shift in resources, Hohman said, reflects a changing reality of Fire Department work: Emergency medical calls outpace fire engine calls by more than two-to-one, according to 1999 figures.

Still, because fire departments are famously tradition-bound, opposition to change is fierce. According to documents released by the county yesterday, four high-ranking officers refused to endorse the new plan: Deputy Chief Thomas D. Mack and Battalion Chiefs James E. Devers, William D. Purcell and Charles E. Watkins.

Administration officials said the four would not be penalized for not signing a statement that said "our commitment to the safety of personnel and the citizens of the county is reflected in the changes we are endorsing."

While none of the four hold-outs would comment yesterday, others have lashed out at Ruppersberger, accusing him of mishandling Fire Department affairs.

"I have never been one to beat around the bush," said retired fire Capt. Philip E. Schubert in a letter to Ruppersberger. "You have destroyed a great fire department by micro-managing and making ill-advised decisions. The latest re-organization illustrates your lack of knowledge and/or concern for the fire service."

Robert J. Barrett, a top Ruppersberger aide handling the department reorganization, denied the charges. "Dutch doesn't micromanage," Barrett said. "I think the department plays politics with itself. It's a tough operation. There are a lot of internal politics."

Another source of concern is a component of the new system that would have battalion chiefs working additional hours without added pay.

Under the change, field battalion chiefs would remain on-call throughout the four-day period during which they now work four shifts.

If fires of two alarms or higher break out, the three battalion chiefs who most recently went off duty would have to come into work, but would not receive overtime.

The on-call system is designed to provide extra coverage in case of more serious emergencies.

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