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Fire captains weigh in against demotion plan


In 1963, Frank Britcher was looking for a stable career and an opportunity to earn respect. He decided to join the Baltimore Fire Department, determined to become a captain -- not a battalion chief, not a deputy chief, not chief of the fire department.

He just wanted to be a captain.

"It's a great job because you are in charge, but you still go out to fight fires," he said. "And you still have close contact with the younger firefighters."

Two years ago, Frank Britcher achieved his goal and was named captain of Aerial Tower 111, in one of the city's busiest fire houses, nestled beneath the Jones Falls Expressway at North Avenue.

But now, at the age of 48, he may see his dream snatched away. Captain Britcher is among 18 city fire captains and perhaps a dozen others of ranks above and below who are facing demotions that are being considered by the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke as a way to hold down the Fire Department's budget.

The proposed demotions, which would save the city about $220,000, are not final, and Mr. Schmoke said yesterday that it would be premature to begin counting the number of officers who, like Captain Britcher, could see their paychecks shrink along with their rank.

Mr. Schmoke, facing a daunting budget deficit, said that he thinks the Fire Department is top-heavy and that he prefers making cuts at the top instead of laying off rank-and-file firefighters or closing firehouses.

"We need guys out there fighting fires," said the mayor's spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman Jr.

But aerial tower captains like Mr. Britcher do fight fires. That is the part of the job he says he likes best, and that is the part that kept him from pursuing a higher rank that might take him off the front line.

Captain Britcher's rise through the department to the job he loves has not been quick. He admits he may not be the most intellectual of men but he's loyal and hard-working.

He studied to advance himself through the ranks every chance he got -- usually after finishing daily chores around the firehouse while his colleagues slept. He took courses at Baltimore Community College and those offered by the department.

"The biggest asset the Fire Department has is the morale of its personnel," he said. "We give the city everything we've got. We never let them down. Kurt Schmoke is trying to do a job, and on paper this may look like a good idea. But for $220,000, he's going to crush the morale of the entire department."

It is out of this sense of pride in his work, Captain Britcher said, that he chose to speak with a reporter about the possibility of being demoted even as officials at fire headquarters said they had asked fire officers not to speak to the news media about the issue.

Capt. Patrick P. Flynn, spokesman for the Baltimore Fire Department, said that since the demotions were still pending, there was nothing for anyone to talk about. Mr. Coleman, the mayor's spokesman, said that "no such order came from me or the mayor's office," and that if such a directive had been issued, "we can correct that."

Says Captain Britcher, "I have a right to talk as long as it's the truth."

Another who feels threatened is Capt. Patrick J. Walsh, 32, who was promoted to that rank just two months ago and therefore would be the first person demoted next month if the plan is adopted.

"This isn't like most jobs," said Captain Walsh, a 12-year veteran. "I can't quit and go somewhere else because I'd go in as an entry-level firefighter. When you take on this job, you realize it's probably going to be a career."

"So they know we're not going anywhere," he added. "And they know we'll bounce back because in this job our skin becomes like leather. We may get bruised but we'll still perform 100 percent."

Captain Walsh said he hopes city budget officials will accept the recommendations of the Fire Officers Association and offer retirement incentives or allow attrition to deplete the fire command staff. This would allow the mayor to downsize the command structure without having to demote officers.

For firefighters like Captain Walsh and Captain Britcher, demotion would be costly. They could see their yearly income shrink by $5,000 or $6,000, but they would continue to perform essentially the same jobs.

"I think the mayor needs to see that this decision will affect real people with families -- people who are proud of what they have been able to accomplish," Captain Britcher said. "Everything I've gotten, I worked hard for.

"How can they take something away from me that I've worked to get?"

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