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Three city fire companies close soon due to budget cuts

A handful of firefighters sat grimly around a table in the North Montford Street firehouse, sweating in the afternoon heat Friday as their battalion chief took inventory of the equipment in Truck 15. The truck, along with the century-old company, will be taken out of service next week.

Company 15 is one of three fire crews that will close, a hotly contested element of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's package of budget cuts intended to close a $48 million shortfall. For firefighters preparing to transfer to other parts of the city, it's been an emotional process.

UPDATE: The companies will remain open until July 5, in the wake of Friday's severe storms and widespread loss of power.

Leaning back in his chair, Capt. Jim Oliver mused that he's spent as much time with Company 15 as he has with his own family. The group takes pride in its quick response to fires and other emergencies — even taking some credit for reducing the city's homicide count by saving lives. He said the departures would tear at the "fabric of the neighborhood."

Firefighting paramedic Rich Langford, who has been with Company 15 in the Broadway East neighborhood for seven years, said the people who work at the fire station have become an integral part of the community. The brick building bears a hand-painted sign that reads "Hotel Montford."

Langford recalled the time a boy came into the station needing air in his bicycle tires. He and a few other members of the company laughed as they remembered not only buying him a new inner tube but giving him dinner as well.

The firefighters union has fought the cuts, questioning whether the remaining 52 companies can handle the extra calls. Rawlings-Blake's administration has pointed out that no firefighters will lose their jobs, and Fire Chief James S. Clack said the changes will allow the department to end the system of rotating company closures that has been in place for four years.

"We're not reducing services July 1; we're keeping what we've had for the last three years," Clack said. "We're maintaining the current service level. The capacity's the same. The people are some of our best, and we're not laying any of them off. We'll probably be better off on Sunday than we currently are today."

But the debate continues along North Montford Street and in the other communities that will see permanent closures.

Engine 33, currently stationed on East 25th Street, will be relocated to the North Montford Street location to keep the firehouse open and provide a substitute for Truck 15. It will shift its coverage area northwest and rely on other engines nearby to protect its old area.

Those who ride firetrucks are the first to enter structure fires; equipped with ladders, their job is search, rescue and ventilation. Once the truck companies effectively clear the area, engine companies equipped with hoses proceed to quell the blaze.

Pandora Taylor, a resident of Bradford Street who operates a snowball stand around the corner from the North Montford Street fire house, knows the distinction between the two and worries that Engine 33 won't effectively replace the truck.

"What are they going to do if someone gets stuck on the third floor of that building right there or in my house?" Taylor asked Friday, pumping syrup into a tall cup of quickly melting crushed ice. "We need that truck. We need all our trucks anyway. The engine's big, but it doesn't have the ladder. We need the ladder."

Beverly Fox, a resident of Collington Commons on East Biddle Street and one of Taylor's customers, recalled firefighters from Truck 15 once evacuating several of her disabled neighbors when an alarm was pulled. She worried that not having the truck company there might jeopardize their safety in event of an emergency.

Along with Company 15, which has about 20 firefighters, the companies of Squad Engine 11, located on Eastern Avenue by the Johns Hopkins Bayview Center, and Truck 10, on the 1500 block of W. Lafayette Avenue, will also be disbanded.

Clack said the cuts should be viewed as part of a trend in the department over the past four years since he became chief. When the economy collapsed in 2008, the city started cutting budgets almost immediately, and several stations and companies were closed, Clack said.

To save money without permanently shutting down more companies, the Fire Department implemented a rotating closures system. In this system, three of the city's 55 companies would be closed on any given day — each company would be closed for about three days of every month — and the city would save operating costs.

This meant the city was working with a 52-company firefighting force on any given day. So when further cuts were called for, Clark identified three companies for permanent closure that he figured would have the least impact citywide and reassigned the firefighters working for those companies to fill vacancies in the remaining ones.

The two trucks and one engine will be used for training and kept as reserves to be used in severe emergencies. Clack projects the move will save the city $6.6 million per closed company over time.

But at Company 15's North Montford Street station, the soon-to-be-departing firefighters and Fire Officers Association President Michael Campbell said they're more concerned with the implications of a lower level of protection for Baltimore residents than the money the city will save.

The company cited the 4,050 calls it received this year — a 600-call increase from last year.

Oliver, who has served in the department for 25 years, said removing one company creates a domino effect: Surrounding companies have to cover that area, and other companies have to cover for them.

Pointing out a related issue, he brought up the five-alarm fire June 12 in Fells Point and said the city Fire Department called in backup "from all over the state of Maryland."

"How do you think the taxpayers in the surrounding counties feel, knowing that their taxes are going toward that?" Oliver said. "The surrounding counties are subsidizing fire protection in Baltimore City. I don't believe we can have more than a two-alarm fire without calling for help."

Battalion Chief Harry Wenger, a 42-year Baltimore firefighter, remembered a time in the 1970s when the city had 30 trucks — that number has since been cut in half.

Campbell said the implications of that trend are troubling.

"I believe [Clack's] plan is to cut the workforce of the Baltimore City Fire Department by 25 percent," Campbell said. "He's been here four years, and he's cut four companies. And I've been here for 25 years, and they never, ever open back up."

A spokesman for City Council PresidentBernard C. "Jack" Youngcalled the closures "extremely devastating to the City of Baltimore."

"Cities like Baltimore are routinely asked to do more with less," Lester Davis said.

Clack said he'd rather keep all of the companies open, but the cuts were necessary.

"I would love to have these companies in service," Clack said. "Would I like it? Yes. Is it affordable? No."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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