Baltimore's fire chief identified Thursday three fire companies he plans to disband, prompting unions to warn safety would be jeopardized in those neighborhoods and a city councilman to decry the loss of Truck 15, described as an integral part of its community.
The move makes permanent budgets cuts that were characterized as temporary fixes two years ago, when the city implemented rotating closures of three fire companies. Officials said they had hoped the fiscal picture would improve with the economy and allow for an end to the closures, but the city still faces a $48 million budget shortfall in the $2.3 billion operating budget.
Under the proposal, the city permanently loses three of 55 fire companies. Fire Chief James Clack said the move causes no change in staffing and added that after analyzing data, he believes public safety will not be compromised.
"We're not laying off any firefighters," Clack said. "We're not closing any fire stations. We're taking some firefighters from one area of the city and moving them to other stations."
But union officials sharply criticized the plan, saying it could place residents' lives in danger, and the chairman of the City Council's public safety committee said he plans to call for a hearing.
"Obviously, I don't want to have anybody closed," said Rick Hoffman, president of the firefighters union. "It makes our job a hell of a lot harder. We're at bare bones right now. I don't know how these people sleep at night. ... They are gambling with the lives of the citizens of Baltimore and the lives of the firefighters serving Baltimore."
The plan would disband Truck 10 in the 1500 block of W. Lafayette Ave. in the Harlem Park neighborhood of West Baltimore, Squad 11 in the 5700 block of Eastern Ave. in the Hopkins Bayview neighborhood of Southeast Baltimore, and Truck 15 in the Broadway East neighborhood of East Baltimore.
A fire company is made up of either a ladder truck or an engine and the staff assigned to it.
"I don't like it," said Councilman Warren Branch, who chairs the public safety committee and represents East Baltimore, where he said Truck 15 is part of the history of the neighborhood. The truck was instrumental in saving lives during the 2007 Cecil Avenue fire, the worst fatal fire of the last decade, which left six dead.
"Truck 15 has been in our community forever," Branch said. "They're taking that away from my district."
He also criticized Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration for budget cuts at the Department of Recreation and Parks, calling those and the three fire companies the "last areas we should be targeting."
Clack emphasized that the Fire Department would still have more staff than it had in 2009, when a dire economy forced the department to have up to five rotating closures. Rawlings-Blake reduced that number to three in the budget for the 2011 fiscal year.
Under the current plan, 72 firefighters would be transferred and 21 officers would be demoted, including six captains and nine lieutenants. The changes, Clack said, make the department more efficient and could improve response times.
"Rotating closures are a temporary solution to a short-term budget problem," Clack said. "It's just a Band-Aid. The problem with rotating closures is when you rotate a fire company closed, you have to fill in that company with another company from somewhere else. That creates holes in our coverage for [emergency medical services] and fire."
Moreover, when firefighters temporarily fill in at a new station, they suffer from a lack of experience in the area and that slows response times, Clack said, because they may not know road names or shortcuts through areas.
"They're not as familiar with the addresses, the community, the buildings," Clack said. "They do a decent job, but they're not as effective as the people who are assigned to that station."
The Fire Department is now able to respond to a scene within five minutes 87 percent of the time. Clack said he thinks the staffing reorganization as part of the closures could help get that rate up to 90 percent, the national standard. His plan also transfers some companies between stations, in part to better cover those areas of Baltimore that the disbanded stations covered.
Clack noted that 17 people died in Baltimore fires in 2011, the lowest number in recorded city history. One person has died in a fire this year, Clack said.
But the city's firefighters and fire officers unions didn't buy assurances about public safety.
Hoffman said Truck 10 and Truck 15 have stellar reputations and are staffed by "heroic, great" firefighters. "They're trying to make the people of Baltimore and the media believe they don't need these people," he said. "We need them. Yes, we do — every damn one of them."
Michael Campbell, president of the fire officers union, also opposes the closures.
"Morale is not going to be good at all," he said. "Once a company is closed it never comes back. ... The citizens of Baltimore have to get [angry] and say they're not going to take it anymore."
Union leaders say they plan to meet with the mayor next week. The plan is scheduled to go into effect July 1.
Clack said he would love to return to pre-recession staffing levels, but that's not going to happen.
"The reality is the city's facing a very, very tough budget," he said. "It's just not realistic for the city to afford to bring all these fire companies back online and [still] do all the other things that need to be done in the city."
City Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chairman of the public safety committee, said he was glad the chief's plan did not include layoffs but wanted more information about how residents' safety would be affected.
"In a perfect world, I would hope we have the same amount of fire companies we had when I was a little kid," he said, "but the world isn't perfect."