Baltimore would close 3 fire companies

Move aimed at narrowing budget gap

December 08, 2009|By Julie Scharper | julie.scharper@baltsun.com

Three city fire companies would be permanently closed at the beginning of the year and firefighters reassigned to other stations under a cost-savings plan endorsed by Mayor Sheila Dixon that is already generating opposition.

Closing the companies, which are located in the central part of the city and close to other units, will allow the city to reduce the frequency that remote fire stations are closed as part of a daily rotation to reduce overtime, Fire Chief James S. Clack said on Monday as he announced the proposal.

Officials said that using nearby units would mean response times in the affected neighborhoods would grow by 90 seconds at most, an increase they considered tolerable.

"The safety factor that is first and foremost is not being compromised," said Dixon. "There are stations around them that I feel confident that can handle the calls."

But City Council members and union leaders expressed strong opposition. "I'm afraid we're just going to lose more lives," said Councilman Warren Branch, who represents an East Baltimore district where a fire station is to be closed. "This is a low-income area where people have many illnesses and sicknesses. Response time is crucial."

Eliminating the companies - an engine in the southwest part of the city, a truck on the west side and a truck in East Baltimore - would put both residents and firefighters in danger, said Bob Sledgeski, head of the firefighters union, explaining that even short delays can allow working fires to escalate. "It clearly puts my members and the citizens at risk," he said.

The companies slated to close under the proposal are:

•Engine 14, 1908 Hollins St. in Carrollton Ridge. The station, built in 1888 and one of the oldest on the East Coast, will be used for storage.

•Truck 15, 1223 N. Montford Ave. in Broadway East. An engine company from Waverly will operate there until a renovation project on their station is completed in the summer. The station will then close.

•Truck 16, 405 McMechen St. in Upton. An engine and a medic unit in the station will continue to operate.

Stations usually house an engine company, a truck company or both. The companies perform different roles in fighting fires.

Since July, five of the city's 54 fire companies have been closed each day and the firefighters deployed elsewhere in an effort to rein in the department's overtime budget. The city has slashed $60 million in expenses from its $2.3 billion budget because of decreased tax revenue and cuts in state aid.

The rotating closures have allowed fire officials to analyze which companies can be most easily covered by nearby stations, Clack said. Officials looked at the proximity of other units and the frequency of calls in making their decision, he said. Some companies, especially those far from other units or on the city's perimeter, "just shouldn't be closed, ever," he said.

While rotating closures have "spread the pain," Clack said, this plan "tried to identify which places in the city could we cover with other fire apparatus the quickest."

Units are expected to take 30 to 90 seconds longer to reach fires in the areas surrounding the closed companies, Clack said. At an October City Council hearing, the chief said that after the rotating closures began, units have taken longer than four minutes to reach nearly one of five fires, a 10 percent increase in that statistic over the previous year.

"Any reduction in service will increase our response times," said Stephan Fugate, president of the fire officers' union. "We've reached the point in our department where there is no fat to trim."

The more than 60 reassigned firefighters would be able to choose among openings across the department. No one will be laid off, Clack said.

The rotating closures have caused problems by forcing firefighters to work in unfamiliar streets with teams they don't know well, he said.

Sledgeski, the head of the firefighters' union, acknowledged the difficulties, but said rotating closures are preferable to permanently closing companies.

"It's like [Clack] has given up," he said. "He's thrown up his hands and said 'I've lost them.' We're not ready to do that now."

Sledgeski noted that the three companies are in impoverished areas where residents often use kerosene heaters or candles because of unpaid energy bills.

"I think it speaks volumes about the political nature of this decision," he said. "They're not closing companies in Roland Park."

Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young is among those opposing the decision, saying, "What if we have a senior in that community dying because a fire truck can't reach them in time? I don't think it's the right thing to do."

Added Councilwoman Jill Conaway: "I don't think closing fire stations is the way to cut the budget."

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