Mayor's plan to close 7 firehouses debated

Firefighters, business leaders present opposing views to City Council

May 25, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

With dueling projectors, area business leaders and city firefighters delivered opposing computer presentations to the Baltimore City Council last night over plans to close seven fire stations.

The sides were responding to Mayor Martin O'Malley's announcement this month to use the projected $4 million to $5 million savings from the closings to put four to six more ambulances on the streets.

What began as a hearing on a bill to require the mayor to hold public hearings before closing stations turned into a debate over O'Malley's plan.

Two businessmen who recommended the plan to the mayor -- James L. Shea of the Greater Baltimore Committee and Joshua C. Matthews of the President's Roundtable -- testified on the need for the closings.

Shea told the council's Judiciary and Policy Committee that 73 percent of the city's emergency calls are related to medical problems and 27 percent to fire calls.

Yet, the city has three times as many fire units as emergency medical squads, he said, leaving city fire trucks to handle many of the medical calls.

"We conducted a lot of analysis and assessment," Shea said, adding that the city should "invest more resources in the emergency medical system. That's where it's needed."

Representatives of the two city fire unions countered with a presentation showing that Baltimore has scaled back its fire service significantly since 1981. Fourteen stations have closed in the past 20 years, Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the city Fire Officers Association, said.

That leaves the city responding to the average house fire with 24 firefighters, fewer than the number responding in Northeastern cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, he said.

"Fire protection is not a business," Fugate said. "It's our point of view that we are the experts."

Council members expressed frustration over vacant firehouses in their neighborhoods and fears that the city might be cutting back too much.

"I don't want another vacant station in my district," said Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a West Baltimore Democrat. "I'm tired."

Other council members criticized O'Malley for not speaking with the council before announcing the fire station closings.

"The mayor's priority is public safety, but the [Fire Department] looks like their stepchildren compared to the Police Department," said Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, a Democrat from southwest Baltimore.

The bill's sponsor, East Baltimore Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, said a city charter provision created in 1989 requires the Board of Fire Commissioners to hold public hearings whenever fire stations are consolidated as part of a five-year plan.

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