It's more than fighting flames

New fire chief: Mayor's pick must reorient a department that handles medical emergencies inadequately.

April 10, 2001

DAY IN, day out, more than 70 percent of the calls to the Baltimore City Fire Department are for medical emergencies. But the city has so few medic units available that fire trucks, instead of ambulances, often are sent to handle life-and-death emergencies.

This makes no sense. It's wasteful economically, and it does not save lives. That's why the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable last year urged Mayor Martin O'Malley to give Baltimoreans the same level of emergency medical services as fire protection services.

Transforming a tradition-bound firefighting agency into an up-to-date emergency response force will not be easy. It will require a total change in the department's training, culture, priorities and equipment.

Mayor O'Malley is in a position to make that happen. He will soon pick a successor to Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr., who retired recently after 47 years of service.

In advertising for the vacancy, the city sought candidates with "experience as a deputy fire chief or in an equivalent executive position in an agency providing fire protection and emergency medical services to an urban population of over 300,000 people."

That description attracted 13 applicants, nine of whom are with the city Fire Department. The list has been narrowed to three finalists.

As he prepares to make his selection, Mr. O'Malley ought to go with a candidate with broad and strong management experience. This is what the department of some 1,500 employees, 61 fire trucks and 20 ambulances needs above all.

For example, the new chief must be able to control runaway overtime costs. Similarly, the new chief must be able to institute new collection practices so that the city can recoup more of the ambulance fees that too often go unpaid.

Before he selects the new chief, the mayor should reread the 79 pages of recommendations in the GBC/Presidents' Roundtable report. The findings fairly shout out Baltimore's need not for another fire bureaucrat, but for an innovator capable of reorganizing the department into a future-oriented emergency services provider.

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