Fire chief explains planned company cuts

Baltimore Fire Chief James Clack explained in detail a plan to save money by permanently closing three fire companies during a City Council public safety committee hearing Wednesday.

Clack said the plan, outlined as part of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's pending budget, won't close any stations or cause layoffs and will help the department regroup after years of rotating closures, which he called a short-term solution to a long-term budget problem.

A smaller force, shrunk through unfilled vacancies and retirements but still able to respond across the city, will save the city money in turn, he said.

Others sharply disagreed, including Michael Campbell, president of the fire officers union; Rick Hoffman, president of the firefighters union; and about a dozen residents from the Berea neighborhood.

"While we understand the need to make cuts, we cannot understand what's happening to our community," said Naon Locust, a resident of the 1200 block of N. Potomac St. since 1956. The neighborhood's Company 15 is one slated to be closed.

Council members at the hearing, including committee chairman Warren Branch, largely questioned the wisdom of closing fire companies. On Thursday, they will vote on proposed cuts to the mayor's budget from council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who said he would like speed camera revenue to pay for the fire companies to remain open.

Hoffman said Clack has "never fought a fire in Baltimore City" and shouldn't have been relied on by the administration to shape the city's response capabilities.

After the hearing, Clack said firefighters have a "lot of company pride," and regardless of the outcome, the process has been "really tough."

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