Pump operator Robert Hatoff remembered the anguished look on the faces of residents, and his own numb feelings of frustration and helplessness, as his three-man crew on Engine 36 watched flames sweep over the wooden back porch.
He described the scene yesterday during a City Council Judiciary Committee hearing on legislation that would mandate four-man crews on most Fire Department apparatus.
It was 7:34 on the evening of Sept. 28. Engine 36 was the second unit to arrive at a dwelling fire in the 2100 block of W. Fayette St.
As the fire crew entered the alley behind the rowhouse, residents told them children had been playing underneath the porch just before the fire broke out. A child was unaccounted for and residents said they had seen something moving underneath the porch.
Hatoff operated the pump on the engine; another man stood at the fire hydrant ready to turn the valve to provide water. That left a fire captain alone to fight the fire.
"One person can't handle the hose well enough to attack the fire," said Hatoff, a four-year veteran. "The captain couldn't even get near the fire. Residents were looking at us with tears and disbelief in their eyes. We had to stand there and wait for additional firefighters to come."
Fortunately, after the fire was extinguished, the charred body found under the porch was a dog's, not a child's.
"Had we had a fourth firefighter, he could have helped the captain attack the flames, put it out immediately and allowed us to get under the porch to determine if a child was there," said Hatoff.
Although no one was injured in that fire, union officials and members testified, every day the city operates fire equipment with three-man crews endangers the lives of city residents and firefighters.
Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, introduced the bill last June shortly after the Schmoke administration announced that the crews would be reduced from the normal four to three members.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said then the move was necessary because there weren't enough people to cover an additional shift that resulted when a new reduced work week went into effect June 1.
Schmoke said the smaller work crews would last only until Sept. 1. But in September, he said they would continue through November until another fire academy class could provide additional personnel.
Jeffrey A. DeLisle, president of Baltimore Fire Fighters Local 734, said the Fire Department has been using four-man crews for 20 years as a matter of departmental policy.
He said the crews are back to the four-man standard during the week, "but we still operate with three-man crews on weekends and on holidays."
According to a minimum standard of operation adopted by the International Firefighters Association, a four-man crew operates at 100 percent efficiency, DeLisle said. A three-man crew operates at 65 percent efficiency.
Experts contend that it is safer to have fewer fire companies than to impair the efficiency of those companies by reducing the crews, DeLisle said.
"As yet, I have not been able to get the fire chief, the fire board or the mayor to make a commitment that four-man crews would return as a matter of policy," DeLisle said.
No one representing the mayor, Fire Chief Peter J. O'Connor or the Board of Fire Commissioners appeared at the hearing.
Clint Coleman, the mayor's press aide, said Schmoke opposes the bill "because he feels it interferes with the fire administration's obligation to run the department."
"The administration's policy is [to] have four-man staffing on fire units and we are moving in that direction," Coleman said.
Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, D-5th, chairwoman of the judiciary committee, said she will ask the fire board this week for a commitment to adopt, as a matter of policy, a four-man work crew.
"If we can't get that commitment, I will send the bill to the council at next Monday's meeting for a preliminary vote with a favorable recommendation," Spector said.