The debate: city fire coverage

How less can be more

May 24, 2000

The following are the Greater Baltimore Committee's recommendations for improving emergency coverage, as adapted from its Internet site:

Updating Baltimore's Fire Department.

The Baltimore City Fire Department has a clear-cut, critical mission: Saving lives. As part of the Presidents' Roundtable/Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) review of city government, Mayor Martin O'Malley charged a 10-member team, led by James L. Shea and Joshua C. Matthews, with making recommendations to enable the Fire Department to better perform its mission.

The team met with Chief Herman Williams, the leadership and the membership of the Fire Department, including union leaders, to analyze its efficiency and effectiveness. Among other findings, this review discovered that the department has not altered its operations as the public's needs have changed. Today, two-thirds of emergency responses are medical, not fire-related.

EMS units are overwhelmed.

The high levels of violence and drug addiction in Baltimore have increased the demands on Emergency Medical Service (EMS) units to the point where our resources are strained. EMS units are so busy that they usually do not return to their stations after starting their shifts. They are routinely dispatched directly from the field because of the high volume of service calls.

Reduced demand for fire engines and trucks.

The decline in Baltimore's population, improved construction and fire codes and the effectiveness of fire prevention efforts -- like the distribution of smoke detectors by the Fire Department -- have resulted in a dramatic decline in structural and residential fires. These fires have dropped by nearly 60 percent in the last five years -- from 5,621 in 1994 to 2,367 in 1999. This decline has resulted in a sharp fall in the number of alarm responses.

Response time.

One result of changing public demands on our Fire Department is a large discrepancy in response time between EMS and fire units. On average, it takes more than twice as long for a medic unit to arrive as a fire unit, when, in many cases, a few seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Baltimore's citizens should not have to wait almost nine minutes for medical help.

By comparison, Philadelphia's EMS units respond, on average, in 6 minutes, 12 seconds. Average fire response time: 4 minutes, 16 seconds Average medic response time: 8 minutes, 44 seconds.

Time in service.

While EMS units are in virtually constant use. fire units, on average, have much lower demand, remaining in the station for more than 22 hours a day.

This misallocation of resources contributes to the difference in response time. It also reflects staffing decisions made when Baltimore was a much larger city, fires were much more frequent, and fire codes and prevention efforts were minimal.

Average fire engine time in service per day: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

Average fire truck time in service per day: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Average EMS unit in service Per Day: 14 hours, 25 minutes.

Shifting resources to where they are needed.

In order to remedy the disparity between EMS and fire response and resources, the team recommends putting four to six additional EMS units on the street.

This will be accomplished by moving to "peak time" scheduling, which will increase EMS deployment from 18 first-line units to as many as 24 units during the hours when demand is greatest.

Currently, 18 EMS first-line units are in use, regardless of demand. There are as many medic units on the street during the slowest hours as there are during the busiest hours. Up to 18 additional EMS units are kept in reserve, depending on maintenance and availability.

This is an ineffective use of resources and unnecessarily lengthens response time. Two new EMS units should be purchased this year to ensure that adequate back-up units are available, and additional units should be purchased over the next several years.

Ending firehouse roulette.

With little notice, the Fire Department, for several years, has closed between four and eight fire stations every day.

This effort to save money, while sidestepping politically difficult decisions, has introduced uncertainty into fire protection planning by constantly changing primary response areas and coverage responsibilities.

Through historical research, statistical analysis and computer modeling, the team has iden-tified seven fire stations where operations and staffing can be consolidated into other stations without negatively impacting fire coverage.

The stations are 6714 Pulaski Highway, 1312 Guilford Ave., 214 1/2 Patterson Park Ave., 3525 Woodbrook Ave., 1302 E. Chesapeake Ave., 43 S. Carey St., and 223 N. Montford St.

These stations all cover areas of the city that also are served by other stations. For example:

The Patterson Park Avenue station is around the comer from a larger house on Eastern Avenue.

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