Firehouse closings upset residents

Mayor unapologetic, saying he won't `shy away from tough calls'

May 11, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Valerie Staley made absolutely certain her Pigtown home was steps away from the fire station when she moved there a month ago. Being close gives her comfort, after her 3-year-old cousin died in his bed as her Cherry Hill home burned down.

She learned yesterday that the South Carey Street firehouse -- four doors from her Southwest Baltimore home -- will close, along with six others in the city.

Mayor Martin O'Malley announced the closings, as residents across the city were shaking their heads and talking about a West Baltimore fire on Tuesday in which two people died.

O'Malley's plan, part of an overhaul of the Fire Department, drew criticism from some city residents, but the mayor was unapologetic.

"I'm not going to shy away from the tough calls," O'Malley said. "Better to make them early and upfront, rather than looking back five years from now saying we should have, would have, could have."

The stations would close by July 1 or sooner, said Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr.

Staley's cousin, Saevonne Lessington, died in early March when a two-alarm blaze roared through her home.

Staley said the fire was caused by a candle, hours before electricity was to be restored to her apartment.

"I lost everything in that fire," said Staley, 30, who lives with her three children. "It scares me they're going to close this station. What do I have to do to keep the firehouse open? Sign a petition or something?"

The closings are supposed to save about $4 million to $5 million, which would be used to put four to six more ambulances on the street, and give pay raises to firefighters and police officers, Williams said.

He said fire protection "will not be drastically reduced."

"Nobody wants to see a firehouse close in their neighborhood," Williams said. "If I had my druthers, I'd have one on every corner. But we only have 22 ambulances, which is way below the norm for a city our size. We need to reallocate resources."

The chief said he chose the seven sites because each area has another firehouse nearby.

But Staley said she doesn't want the firehouse to leave her neighborhood.

In the month she's lived there, she has seen six fires in abandoned homes. Her next-door neighbor, Tonya McCormick, said she has seen two more than that.

"That's the wrong move they're making with that," said McCormick, 30, who has six children. "I don't agree with it at all. I've got too many kids to agree with that."

She said the neighborhood firefighters let her kids play on their trucks when they have downtime. And when her 2-year-old son Rayshawn had an asthma attack a month ago, she ran to the station, and returned with a paramedic who gave Rayshawn oxygen.

"I don't even know where the next closest station is," McCormick said.

In East Baltimore, residents say they see the fire station as a symbol of government, evidence the city cares.

"In a way, this is the only thing we got left," said Byron Dixon, 36, who grew up on North Montford Avenue, across the street from Truck Company 15, one of the stations targeted to close. "This neighborhood is in serious trouble, man. Don't they realize that?

"The station house is important to the people who live here because it's an institution. If they move it, it's going to leave a big hole in the community."

Reggie White, 34, who lives about 10 doors from another of the seven firehouses, on North Patterson Park Avenue, said the station keeps the neighborhood safer because some people don't distinguish between fire and police.

"I can't believe they would think about doing something like that," White said. "It'll really hurt a neighborhood that already has a lot of shootings and drugs. Having the station helps out because people put the fire and the police as being one group. It's kind of like having a police station here."

On the west side, Robert Grier, 63, is concerned about how quickly firefighters will respond now that Station 52 on Woodbrook Avenue is slated to close.

Grier owns an apartment building across from the fire station.

"I think it's going to be disastrous around here because the next closest fire station will be on Garrison Boulevard and Liberty Heights Avenue," he said.

Grier said a 1988 fire started in a vacant apartment in his building and reached the third floor before firefighters arrived from across the street.

"I'm concerned about all seven stations -- but especially about this one, since it affects me," he said.

Sun staff writers Kurt Streeter, Laurie Willis and Gerard Shields contributed to this article.

City fire stations due to close

Engine Company 52 in the 3500 block of Woodbrook Ave.

Engine Company 19 in the 1300 block of Guilford Ave.

Engine Company 24 in the 200 block of N. Patterson Park Ave.

Engine Company 3 in the 6700 block of Pulaski Highway.

Truck Company 13 in the first block of S. Carey St.

Engine Company 128 in the 1300 block of E. Chesapeake Ave.

Truck Company 15 in the 1200 block of N. Montford Ave.

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