Budget cuts and retirements, which have already caused Baltimore County police to put seasoned detectives back on the street and merge some patrol areas, are now forcing changes in firefighting services.
Fire Chief Elwood H. Banister Jr. has ordered crews at four double-engine companies cut in half, starting Feb. 1, and crews on some of the county's eight ladder-rescue trucks trimmed from four to five.
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.
Kevin B. O'Connor, president of Firefighters Local 1311, criticized the changes.
"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.
Labor groups will rally at 4 p.m. Jan. 28 at the Towson courthouse plaza to protest the cuts, he said.
An early-retirement incentive program under way until Jan. 31 has cut deeply into both county fire and police ranks at a time when a 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 70 to 80 more are expected because of retirements.
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.
Chief Banister said he has tried to spread the cuts 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 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, because 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.