Budget cuts and retirements, which have already forced Baltimore County police to put seasoned detectives back on the street and merge some patrol areas, are now forcing cutbacks in fire services.
Fire Chief Elwood H. Banister Jr. has ordered that crews at four double-engine companies be cut in half, starting Feb. 1, and that crews on the county's eight ladder-rescue trucks be trimmed to four from five in some instances.
He also ordered changes in emergency medical services that a fire union leader said could leave coverage thinner in some areas and reassigned four hazardous-materials training officers to field jobs.
"It is not a good time to be chief of the Fire Department. We're up against the wall right now," Chief Banister said yesterday, adding that any further budget cuts will require him to take more drastic measures.
The changes were sharply criticized by Kevin B. O'Connor, president of firefighters Local 1311.
"The administration has to recognize that we need revenue to operate," said Mr. O'Connor, predicting that the cuts will lead to a significant reduction in service.
County labor groups plan rally at 4 p.m. Jan. 28 at the courthouse plaza in Towson to protest the cuts, he said.
A cost-saving early-retirement incentive program under way until Jan. 31 has cut deeply into both county fire and police ranks at a time when a budget-related hiring freeze has left the departments unable to fill the holes.
Battalion Chief Ralph A. Nelson, a county fire spokesman, said the department has seven vacancies in its authorized strength of 1,161 uniformed people, but that 70 to 80 more are expected because of the retirement program.
At the same time, the department has been ordered to cut $1.5 million from the current budget, which runs until June 30, and to spend at least $4.2 million less in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
"I've been here 31 years, and nobody remembers anything like this," Mr. Nelson said.
Chief Banister said he has tried to spread the cuts around to minimize their effects and continue providing "adequate fire protection."
Cutting one crew of four firefighters from each of four strategically located double-engine companies in Towson, Essex, Dundalk and Catonsville will mean equipment can be staffed more flexibly, he said.
The second engines at each location will still be used when needed, during major fires or to back up other companies, but as auxiliary units with two-person crews, the chief said.
Removing one of five crew members from each of the county's eight ladder trucks provides enough firefighters to staff two more fire engines, Chief Banister said.
But Mr. O'Connor argued that reducing crews is ill-advised and having fewer than five people on the huge ladder-rescue trucks "is absolutely taboo by any measure."
The changes in medical services involve removing an Emergency Medical Services vehicle from the Liberty Road area and allowing other units to cover that territory, as well as converting an Emergency Medical Supervisory unit in Parkton to an ambulance unit.
Chief Banister said the change in Parkton will save money on salaries because the new crew will hold lower ranks. It also will expand the unit's abilities, since ambulances can take victims to the hospital, while emergency medical vehicles can treat them only at the scene.
Mr. O'Connor and other critics, however, said the ambulance will have to leave the north county for several hours each time it travels to a hospital, meaning others who need help during that period may wait longer to receive it.
The union leader also criticized the decision to cut four hazardous-materials training officers at a time when such incidents are becoming more common.
Chief Banister said the training is federally mandated and will be continued in the fire academy and in station houses by other officers.