As hundreds of Baltimore firefighters marched on City Hall Thursday afternoon to protest service cutbacks, Mayor Sheila Dixon announced plans to postpone the closure of any more companies until the end of the fiscal year on July 1. One company had been scheduled to close on New Year's Day.
Dixon also said that the number of companies closed for a day on a rotating basis will be reduced from five to four, and that the Fire Department had applied for a federal grant to help fund positions for as many as 22 additional firefighters.
"Our primary concern is the health and safety of the people of Baltimore," Dixon said in a statement released shortly before the firefighters protested outside City Hall.
Said Fire Chief James Clack, "We're optimistic we're going to get that money.
Until they see results, firefighters remain skeptical. Chanting "Don't cut safety" and holding signs reading, "Cuts to Fire and Medical Kill People," more than 300 firefighters walked four and five abreast down North Gay Street. Police briefly closed traffic and residents offered their support.
The protest was organized by the International Association of Fire Fighters, whose president, Harold Schaitberger, opened his remarks by ripping off his suit jacket and saying, "It may be a little cold outside, but I'm hot as hell" over the previously proposed closures.
Schaitberger likened city officials considering closing fire companies to "playing Russian roulette" with neighborhoods affected by such closures. "They say, 'We can't afford to keep all these companies open,' " Schaitberger said. "You can't afford to keep all these companies closed."
Steve Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association, said he has seen a "40 percent" reduction in the size of the city's Fire Department during his 35-year career.
Fugate and others said that a fire last week, which claimed the life of a 76-year-old man and badly injured his daughter, was "kind of the tipping point" for local firefighters to protest what they believe are levels of staffing that are unsafe for themselves and for residents.
"We're operating short citywide," said Fugate. "You can't cut any more."
Longtime city resident Joann Parker, whose son Richard is a city fire captain, said, "They are so essential to us. They save our lives and do everything we need them to do. I don't think this issue is pay loss [during furloughs]. The issue is safety, and that's exactly what they're trying to bring to the public's attention."
While Clack said that the response time to the fire that killed Samuel Davis was delayed when 911 dispatched trucks to the wrong location, firefighters have said it was caused in part by the fact that the station nearest to Davis' West Baltimore home was closed for the night as part of the rotation.
William Cole, the councilman for the 11th District, said that twice in the past nine days he has visited the station housing Truck 16, one of those that now will remain open at least until July 1 but had been closed as part of the rotation.
"In addition to keeping it open, we have to make sure that the rotating closures aren't also affecting coverage in certain parts of Baltimore," Cole said.
Said Clack, "If there are options where we can do this and not rotate companies closed, I'd love to know what they are. There's only so much money. There's only so much we can do."