Fire union officials call decision to close 5 city stations `dangerous'

Studies conclude firefighters' response times will increase

July 21, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Baltimore fire union officials continued to attack Mayor Martin O'Malley's reorganization of the Fire Department yesterday, calling this week's closing of five firehouses "dangerous."

The escalating complaints came on the heels of two studies, sanctioned by the union, which conclude that fires continue to increase and that the closings will increase firefighters' response times.

FireEms, the Beltsville organization that conducted one study, also warns that the closings will further isolate communities near the Baltimore border, where it often takes more than eight minutes for a full response.

"The taxpayers on the edges of the city are not getting anywhere near the service levels of those living in the downtown areas," the report concludes.

FireEms is an independent fire tracking company that maps response times by computer and helps communities plan where stations should be located.

The International Association of Firefighters and the fire officers union paid FireEms $8,000 for its work. The firefighters' union also conducted its own study, which had almost the same findings as FireEms.

"We are convinced we are going to have a tragedy on our hands," said Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association. "We are not going to let this issue die a natural death."

Both studies were sent to O'Malley and Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. this week.

Fugate said yesterday he is demanding a meeting with O'Malley, who, he said, has repeatedly refused to discuss the closings with union officials.

O'Malley declined to comment yesterday, but city officials said the Fire Department reorganization is permanent. "There will be no revisitation of the issue," said Tony White, O'Malley's spokesman.

Five fire stations closed Wednesday as part of O'Malley's effort to reorganize the department and put four more medicunits on the street.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman, said only two new medic units were put in service this week because of "equipment supply problems." He set no timetable for putting the two other medic units on the street.

The mayor has said his reorganization was based on statistics that show the number of fires has dropped by 60 percent in the past five years. Calls for emergency medical services have skyrocketed because of an epidemic of violence and drugs, he said.

The FireEms study disputes those statistics. The study found that fire calls increased citywide from 57,383 in 1989 to 66,478 in 1999. Medic calls increased from 98,499 to 113,292 during the same period.

"O'Malley's decision was an economic decision," Fugate said. "It has nothing to do with fire suppression in Baltimore City."

Fugate said he believes O'Malley is so worried about fighting crime "he does not view the fire service as an essential component of public safety."

Torres defended this week's reorganization. He said the department is meeting its long-standing criteria of having the first unit on the scene within five minutes and all units needed on the scene within nine minutes.

"Yes, by closing stations you have some increase in time" in a few communities, Torres said. "But we do continue to meet the criteria, and it will continue to be met."

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