A former Baltimore fire chief said the city's plans to scuttle two Baltimore fire companies in a budget-cutting move would jeopardize the safety of firefighters and residents.
"This is at a point where you are going to have to do less with less," said former Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., who left the department in 2007 amid controversy over the death of a cadet during a training exercise. "All of these ideas, they've been tried before. They've been proven ineffective or deadly."
"I don't see how this will do anything but save money," Goodwin said. "What is a firefighter's or a civilian's life worth?"
City Hall officials bristled at the comments and current Baltimore Fire Chief James S. Clack defended the budget decisions, saying that he if believed the mayor's budget would put anyone's life at risk he would immediately resign.
"We are not laying anyone off," he said. "We won't have fewer in July then today, we are just redeploying them."
The company cuts are expected to save $3 million in next year's $2.3 billion city budget.
But Clack acknowledged Wednesday that he would prefer to keep those companies open. "I'm a fire chief, I want more fire trucks, I want more resources to do things even more quickly," Clack said. "I don't want people to think that we can keep closing companies."
The City Council will vote for the first time on the budget on Thursday, and members have repeatedly called for the companies remain open, combing the city's finances for other places to cut. Unions criticized the budget plan, airing attack radio spots that claim response times will rise.
The city's fire department took the brunt of public safety cuts this year, losing $3 million from its budget while the city's police department received a small increase.
To meet its budget reduction targets, the fire department proposed mothballing two of its 55 trucks and engines: Engine Company 36 on Edmondson Avenue and Truck Company 2 in downtown Baltimore. The plan slashes overtime, ending the practice of calling firefighters in to fill vacancies.
Truck 2 was dispatched 3,282 times last year, according to fire department data. Over 1,300 calls were for medical service. It will be replaced by an ambulance.
Engine 36 went out 2,386 times in fiscal year 2008, and sixty percent of those calls were for medical service, while 22 percent were for fires. It will be replaced by another fire truck, but not a water-pumping engine.
Fire officials said the companies they are closing have faster response times than the city average, and that response times in the affected neighborhoods should still acceptable.
But cutting fire companies means remaining firefighters must work faster, officials acknowledge. Increased workload can be dangerous, Goodwin said, recalling a fire lieutenant who died of a heart attack when there were rotating fire house closures in the early 1990s.
Clack said that his men and women will work harder, and that he is applying for a $1 million federal grant for physicals to identify health problems.
"I don't think it is a matter of life or death," Clack said. "If I believed people were going to be unsafe, I would resign."
City Hall officials were not pleased by the former chief's remarks. "It's a puzzling critique from the former fire chief given his record on safety," said Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty, in an e-mail. "Chief Clack has a proven record and a laser-like focus on firefighter safety."
During Goodwin's tenure a veteran firefighter and a cadet died in the line of duty. Both deaths occurred while extinguishing fires and subsequent reports raised safety concerns about how the crises were handled. The report on the death of the fire cadet showed that 50 safety standards were broken during the "live-burn" exercise.
Goodwin said those deaths weigh on him heavily, but he added that they illustrate why department needs more funding, not less. "After Racheal Wilson died we did things that cost more money," Goodwin said. "Now we are taking that away?" He said that the department was underfunded when he was there.