Fire Department criticized by union over crackdown; Newsletter says enforcing dress codes hurts morale


A crackdown on dress codes and other rules infractions has Baltimore firefighters complaining that the department is overzealously enforcing trivial matters and ruining morale on the 1,700-member force.

Union officials, in their newsletter, criticized the policy that they say has increased the number of disciplinary cases that include minor traffic accidents.

"The department demands respect from you and then shows their appreciation by placing you on some of the most trumped up charges I have seen in my 25 years," wrote Rick Schulderberg, first vice president of Firefighters Local 734.

Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. defended the stepped up scrutiny, instituted by Assistant Chief Carl E. McDonald, a 34-year veteran and an ex-Marine, because of what he described as lax adherence to rules requiring proper dress and conduct.

It was prompted by an incident several weeks ago, he said, in which a firefighter from Engine Co. 42 wheeled a patient into a hospital while wearing an obscene T-shirt.

A hospital staff member complained and the firefighter was disciplined. Officials said the shirt had a crude sexual reference on the back. They declined to elaborate. Williams would not identify the hospital.

"I'm not going to have that," Williams said. "We serve the public. What is wrong with demanding that our public safety officials look good? Firefighters have to wear uniforms, take orders and put out fires."

The procedures are for everyone, from the firefighters riding on trucks to top level command officers.

Williams said battalion chiefs in his office, including chief spokesman Hector L. Torres, have been reminded to wear their caps while in public.

Only T-shirts with the official Fire Department logos can be worn, and only after 9 p.m. Williams said McDonald is simply enforcing rules already on the books.

Schulderberg said some of his members were wearing "stuff that was inappropriate. A couple of guys spoiled it for the group." But in the newsletter, he and other union officials complained that the department is going overboard.

"I don't think I've ever seen the PIO [Public Information Officer Torres] in an interview with a dress cap on," Schulderberg wrote. "If it's the department's goal to kill off the last remaining piece of pride, then opening turnout coats to check for tee shirts will do that."

Third Vice President Dave Cox of Local 734 used his column to charge that discipline is unfairly doled out. He said paramedics involved in two minor accidents were treated differently -- one getting a suspension, another only a reprimand.

Among the more serious infractions is an accusation that two paramedics failed to give CPR to a man they said was already dead. Fire officials said the paramedics failed to follow proper protocol to pronounce the victim deceased and suspended them for 10 days.

Union officials said they are not as upset with the severity of discipline, and they recognize that seemingly minor accidents involving heavy fire engines are serious.

But they said the stricter discipline was a surprise, as such infractions had not before been taken this seriously by the department.

Schulderberg said he believes more firefighters are being suspended without pay to help the department make up a budget shortfall.

Williams denied ulterior motives and said discipline is less severe now than it was two decades ago. He said the department is hiring more people without military experience who are not used to working in a military-like organization.

The crackdown is important because what might seem like trivial indiscretions can erode public confidence, Williams said.

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