Legislators, Council Head Call For Halt To Fire Closings

December 12, 2009|By Julie Scharper and Liz F. Kay | Julie Scharper and Liz F. Kay , julie.scharper@baltsun.com and liz.Kay@baltsun.com

State leaders and the Baltimore City Council president joined the call Friday for an end to rolling closures of firefighting companies aimed at trimming overtime costs.

"If ending the rotating closures saves one person's life, it's worth it," said Del. Curt Anderson, who, along with several other state lawmakers, discussed the closures during a meeting about the city's budget woes with Mayor Sheila Dixon.

Since July, shift commanders have chosen five units to close each day to shave overtime costs from the department's budget. One company is slated to close permanently next month, with its members moved to other units, which would allow for fewer rolling closures. It would cost the city $3.5 million to end the daily closures until the end of the budget year, Fire Chief James S. Clack said.

Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake said Friday that the city needed to make cuts in other areas or transfer funds from other agencies.

"There's only so much you can cut from the fire budget before you start affecting the lives of residents and firefighters," she said, adding that she had expressed concerns about the closures since the plan was first unveiled.

Residents and workers in the Pigtown neighborhood, where a two-alarm fire ripped through a vacant building Friday morning, said they were alarmed to learn that the closest engine to the blaze had been sidelined by the closures. "This is an old district around here with all the wooden buildings. We need [firefighters] around here," said Madalynne Harthausen, surveying the aftermath of the blaze.

The first units reached the fire about three minutes after an initial call, well within national guidelines, fire officials said.

This week, an elderly man died after a fire broke out in a West Baltimore home six blocks from a shut-down firetruck. Were it not for confusion caused by a garbled call that led rescuers to the wrong address, the deactivated truck would have arrived at the blaze more quickly than other units, fire officials said.

State lawmakers raised the issue of closings several times during a presentation on the city's budget. Anderson and Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden asked whether Dixon was rethinking the plan in light of this week's death.

Dixon told the group that she and fire officials are examining the issue. However, pointing to the city's projected $52 million deficit this fiscal year, she added, "You can't just focus on the Fire Department and have every other agency say, 'What about us?' "

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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