Rotating station closings assailed

Fire Department shuts 4 units daily for training

`We have to be creative'

Union says temporary closures disrupt coverage

April 12, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Fire Department is temporarily closing four units each day for the next five weeks, a move criticized by union officials who say firefighters are already stretched thin in a year of record fire fatalities.

Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said the daily, rotating closings of four of the city's 55 fire engine and truck companies are needed to accommodate training for firefighters. The temporary closures started April 3 and will continue until May 19.

Goodwin said that not staffing two daytime engine shifts and two evening shifts will not disrupt fire coverage because neighboring companies provide backup. He said training occurs routinely and that staffing, already at anemic levels, is always a challenge.

"We have to be creative," Goodwin said. "There's always risk."

The current training is not routine, however, because it requires 128 firefighters - out of a force of approximately 1,600 - to alternate eight to 10 hours of daily classes in advanced operations.

Most are making up training they should have already received under an apprentice program, fire officials said. The training is being expedited before summer vacations create further delays.

Goodwin said worries about fire coverage are being blown out of proportion by the department's two unions, which have been pushing the department to complete the added training.

"If you don't do training they file a grievance," he said.

Worries about coverage

Union officials said they do want the training, but not if fire coverage is jeopardized. They said the department is not providing advance notice to units that would be covering the engine and truck companies closed for training. They also said routine training typically requires firefighters to drive to the fire academy in their engines or trucks. If a fire breaks out, they can respond.

The members currently being trained are reporting directly to the academy, not their station houses, which means they are not available to respond to fire calls.

"If you are reducing the number of apparatus or manpower, you are reducing fire protection," said Richard G. Schluderberg, president of the Baltimore City Fire Fighters Local 734. "It doesn't make sense to close units when fire deaths are up."

Last year, the city recorded 27 fatalities from fires. In the first four months of this year, there have been 23 deaths, a figure Goodwin called "unprecedented."

The city has 36 fire engine companies, which provide water for fighting fires, and 19 fire truck companies, which provide ladders used by firefighters to ventilate burning buildings and to perform rescues.

Some stations consist of just one fire engine or truck company. Most consist of both. Each station covers an approximate radius of two miles. When one or both companies is not staffed, another company has to cover the added ground.

The Web site for the Baltimore Fire Officers Union lists the companies that have been closed and claims taxpayers are not getting the service they pay for. "Might we suggest that you buy a garden hose and a ladder, learn CPR, and call your councilperson for an explanation," the Web site states.

Closings a preview

While Goodwin has repeatedly vowed not to permanently close stations, the temporary closures of engine companies are a preview of the rotating closures of at least four companies proposed for the entire 2005 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The rotating closures are necessary, Goodwin said, because his department's $103 million budget next year is $5.5 million less than this year's.

Goodwin said the current temporary closures are not budget-related, even though overtime costs this year have put his department $2 million over budget.

Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. said Goodwin should have alerted the council during February's mid-year budget hearings about the possibility of temporary closures.

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said he, too, is worried.

"We want to make sure we have our stations properly staffed to deal with emergencies, especially with the increased number of fires in Baltimore," Harris said.

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