Four months after Baltimore closed seven fire units, fire officials said they have seen no slippage in response time to fire calls but worry about a growing number of vacancies.
At council chambers in City Hall, Chief Herman Williams Jr. and a firefighters union leader told City Council members last night that the number of vacancies in the department has reached 118, about double the usual number.
The problem is a lack of qualified recruits, Williams said. Sixty positions are vacant in the ambulance service and 49 among firefighters, he said, and 70 firefighters will soon be eligible to retire.
Williams, assured members of the Public Safety Committee that residents are not at risk.
"Although we have had a downsizing of sorts, we are meeting our responsibility to take care of emergencies as they arise," Williams said. "When that gong goes off, these men and women do the job."
Both Williams and Rick Schluderberg, acting president of the Baltimore Firefighters Association, blamed the recruiting problem on the low starting salary. Apprentices earn $20,000 for their first 18 months. In Baltimore County, the comparable salary is $25,393.
Although city firefighters' salaries rise to $29,000 after 18 months and $39,000 in three years, the starting rate does hamper recruiting, Williams said. The department is pushing to raise it to $25,000, he said.
"We're competing for the same pool of people that the [other jurisdictions] are," Williams said. "It's boiled down to money."
In July, Mayor Martin O'Malley closed three engine companies and four truck companies to add four medic units. The Greater Baltimore Committee and Presidents' Roundtable recommended the action after noting a decrease in fire calls but an increase in those for ambulances.
Fire officials told council members that the cuts should help reduce overtime costs. Last year, the department spent $7 million in overtime, a figure that should drop by about $2 million, they said.
Williams' appearance was the first of several periodic agency reviews requested by Council President Sheila Dixon. Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris will appear before the committee in council chambers at 5 p.m. Thursday.