City Council wants advance notice of Fire Department changes

A bill that would require that all major unit changes to the Baltimore Fire Department be reported to the City Council and announced to the public before their implementation received preliminary approval during a council committee hearing Wednesday night.

The bill, introduced by Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, also would require Fire Chief James S. Clack to provide the council with a yearly strategic plan outlining how the department plans to use its resources. Current law requires strategic reports to the council every five years.

"I truly believe our constituents have the right to be fully informed," Young said.

Young's introduction of the bill follows the recent closure of two fire companies by the administration of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake amid budget constraints and the cancellation of a plan to close a third.

Young and other council members criticized the closures, saying the council did not receive sufficient warning or explanation about the closures and there was not enough community input. The closures "violated the spirit of the law," Young told Clack.

Young said he introduced the bill, and a separate council resolution requesting a full report on the impact of closures, to improve the system of "checks and balances" on Fire Department decisions.

Clack, who answered heated questions from council members, said the city is "safer than it was three years ago" and that fire fatalities are trending downward in part because technological advances have improved the department's ability to rapidly shift resources to respond to changing needs.

Clack said Young's measure could decrease department effectiveness by preventing rapid redeployments. A Rawlings-Blake spokesman said the mayor had similar concerns.

Young said that was not his intention, and language was added to the bill to limit required reporting to permanent changes lasting more than three months.

A handful of residents who testified at the hearing spoke in favor of the bill.

Pam Lacsny, mother of firefighter Matthew Coster, who has been a "floater" unattached to a specific company since Truck 15 was closed in July, said the closure turned her son's life upside down.

"I realize you can't legislate morality and honor, but you can legislate policies and procedures for a better outcome," Lacsny told the council.

Both the bill and resolution passed a first reading and will next be considered Monday.

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