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Council questions proposal to cut two Baltimore fire companies, worries about response times

City Council members pushed back Thursday against budget cuts to Baltimore’s fire department, worried that a recommendation to close two companies would decrease response times.

Fire Chief Niles Ford told the council’s Budget and Appropriations Committee that his staff was analyzing ways to reduce overtime costs and trim the agency’s roughly $300 million spending plan in light of financial pressures on the city from the coronavirus pandemic.

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Ford said he did not have a specific plan for which companies to cut, but said any such action would not result in the closure of fire stations. Disbanding the companies would give the department more flexibility to deploy firefighters to cover shifts when employees are on vacation or out sick.

The cuts would save about $3 million, with the potential for more savings through decreased overtime expenses.

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The department pledged to provide more specifics to the council in the coming days. Ford said the recommendation would be based on data that show how shifting manpower would impact the speed at which firefighters could respond to emergencies.

The council is expected to take a preliminary vote Monday on the $3 billion operating budget proposed by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. The budget, which takes effect July 1, must account for a dramatic decrease in revenue due to the outbreak and subsequent shutdowns. City officials project roughly $20 million less in revenue each month.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a North Baltimore Democrat, said the council should reject a cut to the fire department. During a two-hour virtual hearing, she said closing two fire companies during the pandemic is wrong “for public safety and the perception of public safety.”

“We should help the fire department get that money back and keep those companies, because they play a vital role,” said Clarke, who is retiring in December. “And it is part of the safety the citizens are used to and relying on.”

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Ford said the department has struggled for years with running over budget for overtime. He said making adjustments is hard, because 90% of the agency’s money goes toward employee compensation.

“We have to try to find a way to work within our budget,” he said.

Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer of Northwest Baltimore said the council needs more information from the department before making any decisions. He said he was alarmed by the proposal.

“If someone is having an emergency and they call you ... whatever time they wait is a lifetime,” Schleifer said.

Ford also provided an overview of the department to the council members. The fire chief said he is reassessing the department’s organization. The agency also is awaiting the results of a study to improve its emergency and non-emergency call systems.

Council President Brandon Scott said he wants more information about how the 911 operators and dispatchers can better respond to mental health crises going forward rather than continuing to deploy fire and police resources to respond to such needs. Scott secured the Democratic nomination for mayor and is poised to take office in December.

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