Council Head Wants Fire Dept. To Defend Cuts

August 11, 2009|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Baltimore's City Council president wants the fire chief to defend a budget-saving strategy that sidelines firetrucks and engines throughout the city on a rotating basis and introduced a resolution Monday evening that requests a public briefing on the plan.

"It is an issue that keeps bubbling to the surface," said City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake. "I'm not saying it was a good decision or a bad decision. ... It is important to take a step back and assess the effectiveness."

The new money-saving policy was initiated to help close a $65 million citywide budget shortfall and means that on any given shift, a maximum of four fire companies throughout the city remain parked in their stations. The plan eliminates the overtime that the department used to use filling shifts when firefighters were on leave, at training or out sick. It saves $3 million.

Now, five weeks into the new budget year, council members have been bombarded with e-mails and complaints from fire unions and the rank-and-file describing the department's execution of the rotating closure plan as "stupid" and "very, very dangerous." Critics point to Friday evening, when they say much of West Baltimore was unprotected because two side-by-side firetrucks were out of commission.

"It is inevitable that something tragic is going to happen; it is just a question of when," said Capt. Stephan Fugate, the head of the fire officers union. "We've dodged the bullet to this point. But that is not how we should be operating as public safety officials."

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon does not share those concerns. "I think things are going fairly well," she said Monday afternoon. Fire Chief James S. Clack said it would be "great" if the department had more funding, but noted that even before the budget cuts, the Fire Department closed one or two stations on a rotating basis each day. "We're getting by," Clack said. "It is not the way we want to operate forever."

Staffing in July presented a "challenge," he said, because there were a maximum of six closures per day, but the recent graduation of a new fire academy class means the closures are now more limited.

The fire chief's original budget plan called fewer rotating closures per shift, because he wanted to permanently close two fire companies - including a fire engine in Councilwoman Agnes Welch's West Baltimore district.

But during the tense budget season, Welch fought successfully to keep the engine in her district operating, and the department instead agreed to close an additional company per shift.

That was a plan one union leader preferred to permanent closures. "No firehouse that has ever been closed has ever been reopened," said Bob Sledgeski, head of the union for rank-and-file members.

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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