O'Malley is right to shift fire priorities

Baltimore: Changes are needed because medical emergency calls now outpace fire alarms.

May 16, 2000

EVER SINCE the Great Fire of 1904, Baltimoreans have been emotional about fire protection. That's why all past attempts to streamline the fire department have been greeted with derision.

Mayor Martin O'Malley has renewed the controversy by proposing to close seven firehouses across the city. No firefighters would lose their jobs as a result, but 140 would be reassigned.

The reorganization -- recommended by a study team from the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable -- is long overdue. Despite predictable criticism, the mayor must see that it is implemented.

The department is no longer primarily a firefighting organization. Two-thirds of calls deal with medical emergencies. But the department is so poorly equipped to handle these emergencies that it often winds up sending a fire truck to handle a sick call.

The discrepancy can be seen in statistics:

An average fire engine is in service 107 minutes a day, according to the GBC/President's Roundtable study. When a fire occurs, the average response time is 4 minutes, 16 seconds. In contrast, an average medical emergency unit is in service 14 hours, 25 minutes a day. Average response time: 8 minutes, 44 seconds.

Unless someone can prove these figures grossly inaccurate, the mayor is right to advocate putting more emphasis on prompt handling of life-and-death medical emergencies.

Mr. O'Malley's plan comes as the fire department has started replacing antiquated neighborhood firehouses with bigger, more versatile stations. The first prototype station, at 25th Street and Kirk Avenue was opened recently. Two more are on the drawing board -- one to be located in Locust Point, the other in the Edmondson Avenue corridor.

First-rate fire protection must remain among the city's priorities. But it should not be provided at the expense of prompt response to medical emergencies.

Firehouses are regarded as sources of pride in many communities. As he starts to close them, the mayor must make sure they will be put to other constructive uses. The worst thing that could be happen is for them to turn into vacant eyesores.

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