There were only 25 minutes left in the long life of the busiest firetruck company in Baltimore, so at 6:35 a.m. Monday, when a dispatcher's voice came over the radio to announce a nearby dwelling fire, one of the men of Truck 15 cursed angrily. He heard the dispatcher call for other trucks to handle the fire and, in that moment, reality set in: Truck 15 was out of service, its company about to disband.
The men of Truck 15 stood, hands in their pockets, at the entrance of their fire station on North Montford Avenue in East Baltimore — the Hotel Montford, they called it, and so old that sometimes dust falls from the hayloft above the bathroom. When the station opened, in 1908, horses pulled the hook-and-ladder.
That 104-year-long run of service ended Monday.
Truck 15's last official call was for a rowhouse fire Sunday at 11:18 p.m. It remained parked for the rest of the last shift.
"We're done," said Rich Langford, acting lieutenant. You could hear sirens in the distance now. Other trucks and engines were moving through the morning rain to the fire on North Washington Street, just five blocks from Truck 15. The men of the last shift — Langford, Naim Abdal-Rahim, William Thomas and Bob Williams — were as gloomy as the weather, sad and angry about breaking up.
"Pride Protecting People" was the motto on the blue T-shirt Langford wore, and you felt every bit of that in the last minutes of the busiest truck company in the city.
"Almost 4,100 calls from July 2011 to July 2012," Langford said.
"Four thousand ninety-seven," said Abdal-Rahim.
"We've had 109 calls since July 1," Langford added.
July 1 was when Truck 15 and two other companies were scheduled to disband to save the city money. But the derecho storm of June 29 kept them in service for another 10 days, and one of them, West Baltimore's Truck 10, won a reprieve until Oct. 1.
Here's the piece that doesn't make much sense: These are companies disbanding, not station houses closing. While Truck 15 disbands, the Hotel Montford stays open and another engine company moves in. The city is merely putting one company out of operation, assigning its members to other duties, and moving another unit into the Hotel Montford.
"The doors will still be going up and down," says Rick Hoffman, president of the city firefighters union.
Fire Chief James Clack believes the changes will save the city $6.6 million per closed company over time. But is that a smart savings in a city with a $2.3 billion operating budget?
That question was amplified when the storm hit June 29 and Clack delayed the disbanding of Truck 15, along with Truck 10 and Southeast Baltimore's Squad 11. Hoffman, the Local 734 president, fired off this statement:
"The fact that on the very first day these companies were slated to be closed, we had to keep them open because they were needed is proof positive that Chief Clack's plan to permanently close them is not workable. The city is effectively admitting that the companies are necessary. ... Emergencies are, by nature, unpredictable. Clack may feel he doesn't need these companies, until the next emergency arises."
Hoffman says that in the 24 hours after the storm hit, the crews of Truck 15, Truck 10 and Squad 11 handled 57 calls for downed power lines and emergency medical runs, mostly to the homes of senior citizens.
"We had 23 calls that night," said Capt. James Oliver of Truck 15. "Wires down, hazardous conditions, water leaks through roofs, a tree on a house, electrical sparks, and 12 or more EMS calls."
Capt. Ben Alder reported similar experiences with Truck 10. His men had to move a tree that was blocking a street to answer one call. A veteran of 38 years in city service, most of it on the west side, Alder noted that in a natural disaster, Baltimore can't rely on backup from fire departments in the surrounding counties because they're all busy, too. "Mutual aid doesn't work in a storm like that," Alder said.
It's the unpredictable nature of everything — from storms to fires to medical emergencies — that prompts fire officers and firefighters to challenge the decisions being made about manpower throughout a city of 620,000 people. Baltimore might be smaller than it was 50 years ago, but there are still miles of old rowhouses, and all kinds of human problems, from heroin addiction and violent crime. You add a fresh experience with a 21st-century problem — extreme weather related to climate change — and a taxpayer is allowed to wonder if disbanding fire companies is a good idea.
It was just before 7 a.m. when the voice of the city dispatcher came over the radio again, this time to announce that Truck 15 had been officially disbanded. By then, the truck had been driven off to the fire academy. Rich Langford and the others from the busiest truck company in the city shook hands one last time and went home.