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Inspector general: Baltimore fire department let out-of-state staffers overuse city vehicles

The Baltimore City Fire Department allowed staffers, particularly those living outside Maryland, to rack up an outsized number of miles on city vehicles by commuting to and from work, according to a report released this week by the city’s Office of the Inspector General.

The department has assigned 35 take-home vehicles to employees, according to a Department of General Services analysis. Seven are assigned to employees who commute more than 35 miles one-way to residences outside of Maryland. One other is assigned to an employee commuting 59.4 miles away to Queen Anne’s County.

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Those employees travel more than 102,000 miles a year, costing the city an estimated $63,096 in maintenance and repairs, the report says.

The vehicles are meant to aid employees in quickly responding to emergencies while on-call, and are assigned by the fire chief. All employees with a vehicle must live within 60 miles of a city fire station, according to the department’s policy. But the inspector general’s report faulted the city for giving vehicles to employees who could not respond rapidly to incidents anyway because of the length of their commute.

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“A BCFD member who resides out of state cannot reasonably be expected to quickly respond to a City emergency using a take-home vehicle or provide an immediate impact on any BCFD operations,” the inspector general’s report stated. “Further, take-home vehicles used to travel across jurisdictional lines present a potential risk and liability to the City.”

Three of the fire department’s four shift commanders live outside of Maryland, the inspector general’s report said. Officials said the commanders would be briefed while they drove to the incident, and take charge of the scene once they arrived.

“We make sure that we have the right member in the right position at the right time to provide the right resources for the community,” said fire department spokeswoman Blair Adams.

The employee in Queen Anne’s County, for instance, must respond to all emergency facility maintenance issues, she said. Having a city vehicle helps speed that process.

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“We are not mismanaging Baltimore City resources,” Adams said. “We have nearly 1,800 employees within the Baltimore City Fire Department. That’s sworn and unsworn. And out of that, 35 members have take-home vehicles. So that is less than 2%.”

The department reevaluates its vehicle policy annually, Adams said, and could make changes in the years ahead to reduce the miles traveled by city vehicles.

In some of the other jurisdictions studied by the inspector general’s office, including Bowie, Laurel and Greenbelt, employees park their assigned vehicle at the closest fire station to their residence and then drive a personal vehicle the rest of the way home.

That change could be considered for Baltimore, Adams said.

“It has been tossed in the air,” she said. “We haven’t settled on anything.”

According to the report, fire department leadership also allowed employees to use city vehicles for some personal travel, despite the department’s rule book restricting their use to official travel and occasional errands while commuting to or from work.

“Members are allowed to travel to restaurants with their family in their take-home vehicle to ensure a quick response if they are called for an emergency,” the report read. “The BCFD Chief acknowledged that the on-call member’s family may need to accompany the member to an emergency in those scenarios.”

The fire department’s manual doesn’t specify who is allowed to ride in the vehicles, presenting another liability concern, the inspector general’s report said.

The extra mileage is of particular concern because it can result in the vehicles’ warranties expiring more quickly. The city purchases vehicles with a three-year or 36,000-mile warranty — whichever comes first.

“Take-home vehicles decrease the City’s ability to contain the maintenance cost within the first three years of the manufacturer’s warranty because the added commuter miles on those vehicles can take them out of the three-year warranty period,” the report read.

In sum, all 35 of the department’s assigned take-home vehicles cost the city an estimated $165,000 annually, and have cost more than $775,000 so far.

Baltimore City Fire Chief Niles Ford told the inspector general’s office he would be willing to “scrutinize the current take-home vehicle list to reevaluate the number of needed assignments,” according to the report.

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