Fewer Baltimore firefighters will respond to initial fire alarms, to free them up for emergency medic calls

Grappling with a significant rise in emergency medical calls, the Baltimore Fire Department plans to reduce the number of engines, trucks and battalion chiefs it dispatches to initial fire alarms beginning Sept. 1.

Three engines, one truck and one battalion chief will be dispatched to an alarm, down from the five engines, two trucks, two battalion chiefs and one medic unit that constitutes a full box alarm assignment, according to a department memo, dated Wednesday.


“Local Alarm will reduce the number of units dispatched to box alarms,” the memo says. “Multiple 911 calls to Fire Communications would warrant the full Box Alarm Assignment.”

Baltimore Fire Chief Niles R. Ford confirmed the memo, saying the department’s initial-response reduction will “make sure we have [fire] suppression units available for other calls, in particular, EMS calls,” while providing battalion chiefs the discretion to escalate fire responses as needed.


Firefighters are cross-trained as emergency medical service units and can respond to ambulance calls, he said.

“Our goal, at end of the day, is to make sure we leverage the resources we have to respond to the level and type of calls we have,” Ford said in an interview.

The International Association of Firefighters Local 734, which represents unionized rank-and-file Baltimore firefighters, criticized the planned response reduction.

“This local is against any changes that will lower the amount of units on [an] initial response,” the union tweeted Thursday. “This not only puts our members in danger but the citizens of Baltimore.”

Local 734 president Richard “Dickie” Altieri II could not be reached for comment.

Ford said he disagreed with the union’s criticism, arguing that shifting department resources is “not earth-shattering” and has been done “since the beginning of time.”

Upon learning of the plan Thursday, City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke called for the Fire Department to hold off until the council holds a public hearing on the changes and their potential consequences. Such a hearing could take place in Clarke’s Labor Committee, which has been meeting with the department about staffing issues, the Public Safety Committee, or even the full council, she said.

“I understand what the chief is saying,” Clarke said. “But I also understand how fast fires burn.”

The number of personnel dispatched to initial fire alarms after Sept. 1 will still exceed the National Fire Protection Association’s recommendations, Ford said. Seventeen fire department personnel will respond to an initial call, higher than the standard of 15 set by the NFPA, Ford said.

The department has increased the number of ambulances in the field in Baltimore by 50 percent in the past five years to deal with a deluge of drug overdoses and other emergency medical calls, the chief said. The union has criticized the department for using firefighters to staff medic units, saying it leads to longer fire response times. The department has responded that it is working to address staffing shortages.

“We’re still struggling to keep up," Ford said. “The ultimate goal is to make sure we have the availability of resources for the call volume that has increased."

Baltimore firefighters and medics now are called to more than four times as many medical emergencies as fires. Over the past three fiscal years, they have responded to an average of about 154,800 emergency medical calls, compared to only about 34,900 fire calls, per year, according to data provided by the department.


The Baltimore Fire Department is the 12th-busiest in the country by runs, according to Firehouse Magazine, an industry publication.

Engine 33 in East Baltimore, the city’s busiest engine, was ranked fourteenth in runs nationwide, with 5,497 last year alone — more than 15 per day. At the same station, Truck 5 was the fourth-busiest ladder truck in the country with 5,465 — just under 15 a day.

Given the city’s overwhelming crime and opioid problems, City Council President Brandon Scott said he has been urging the police and fire departments to use a more data-informed approach to improve both agencies and streamline their responses to 911 calls.

Scott, who previously chaired the Public Safety Committee, said the sharp increase in EMS calls has come up in previous meetings, and he expects that committee will continue to monitor the issue.

As long as the fire department is conforming to national standards for its responses, Scott said, “I’m willing to say, ‘Let’s monitor this.’

“We have to evolve the way our agencies, most particularly our public safety agencies, use data to inform how they can best respond,” the city council president said.

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