In a sweeping overhaul of the Fire Department, Mayor Martin O'Malley will announce today plans to close seven firehouses across the city, a proposal that drew criticism from community groups and union officials last night.
O'Malley will unveil the plan as part his first budget, which will be presented to the Board of Estimates today.
The closings, which would not result in layoffs, would save about $4 million to $5 million. That savings would be used to put additional emergency medical units on the street and give pay raises to firefighters and police officers, the mayor said last night.
"I don't think this caught anybody by surprise," O'Malley said. "The firefighters may seem surprised, but everyone knew we would have to do this for a long, long time. But no one ever had the political will to do it."
The plan, developed by a team of advisers who are reviewing the efficiency of city agencies, calls for the 140 firefighters to be reassigned to paramedic units or other firehouses, O'Malley said.
The mayor said that though ambulance calls have increased significantly in the past five years, the number of fire calls has dropped significantly.
O'Malley said the department's estimated 150 vacancies probably will not be filled.
Residents served by the closed stations would be covered by existing firehouses, O'Malley said. Despite a reduction that would bring to 56 the number of fire stations in the city, the change should not result in an increase in response times, he said.
O'Malley said he did not know how soon the stations might close, referring that question to Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. But Williams said last night that he did not know when the stations would close and declined to comment further.
The proposed closings drew an angry response from Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association, Local 964, who said the stations are among the busiest in the city.
"From my perspective as a firefighter, this is dangerous, dangerous stuff," said Fugate. "The city has gotten smaller, the people have moved out, but they have not taken their houses with them."
He said the closings could result in an increase in fire deaths, which fell to a record low last year.
The closings also prompted criticism from neighborhood groups.
One of the proposed closings -- a firehouse on East Chesapeake Avenue in Curtis Bay -- is the nearest station to chemical warehouses in southern Baltimore, residents said.
"That's the only fire station around there. I don't see how they can even consider closing it without talking to the communities that surround it," said Dave Schuyler, president of the Community of Curtis Bay Association. "In a chemical area, they need immediate response. I'm against it, and I think you'll find everyone in this area is against it."
Reaction was mixed from City Council members, who were told of the plan last night at a meeting with O'Malley.
"I just think it is awful," said Councilwoman Bea Gaddy, a Democrat from East Baltimore's 2nd District, where three stations would close. "Many times people run around the corner to get help. We know that the Fire Department is there."
In southern Baltimore's 6th District, where two stations will close, Councilman Melvin L. Stukes said, "This is overdue."
The council, which can cut O'Malley's budget but not add to it, has limited power to block the proposal to close the stations.
Decline in fires
The plan was based on statistics that show the number of fires in the city has dropped by 60 percent of the past five years. In 1994, units responded to 5,621 calls, compared with 2,367 last year, the mayor said.
The number of calls for emergency medical services, however, has skyrocketed recently as paramedics grapple with an epidemic of violence and drugs.
The city has an average response time of eight minutes and 44 seconds for emergency medical services, more than double the national average of four minutes, according to the report by the mayor's office.
Under the plan, two emergency medical units would be purchased this year and four additional units during the next several years to improve response times. Schedules of existing emergency medical personnel would be shuffled to put more units in service during peak hours for emergency calls.
"Hopefully that lopsided four minutes vs. eight minutes will not be so lopsided," O'Malley said. "What we need is more paramedics."
His proposal is based on recommendations of the Greater Baltimore Committee, the city's largest business group, and the President's Roundtable, a group of minority business leaders. Members of the organizations have been reviewing city departments similar to an undertaking by Philadelphia business leaders eight years ago.
The Philadelphia recommendations helped remove the city from the brink of bankruptcy and create an annual surplus.
The groups made their recommendations on what firehouses to consolidate based on testimony from fire-suppression experts and an analysis of firehouse locations. Williams and his staff completed the plans several days ago, O'Malley said.
The fire stations targeted for closing are: Engine Company 52 in the 3500 block of Woodbrook Ave.; Engine Company 19 in the 1300 block of Guilford Ave.; Engine Company 29 in the 200 block of N. Patterson Park Ave.; Truck Company 15 in the 1200 block of N. Montford Ave.; Engine Company 3 in the 6700 block of Pulaski Highway; Truck Company 13 in the first block of S. Carey St.; and Engine Company 128 in the 1300 block of E. Chesapeake Ave.
"If you have to close any, close the ones who spend a majority of the time in quarters such as in Roland Park," Fugate said.
"Five of the seven [to be closed] are the busiest companies in the city -- and coincidentally in the minority community," he said.
O'Malley said city firefighters' efforts could be bolstered by help from other counties, under an unsigned "automatic aid pact" with Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. That agreement would provide for equipment to be sent to fires, regardless of jurisdiction.
"If I were a taxpayer in Anne Arundel or Baltimore county, I would be outraged," Fugate said. "Baltimore City is reducing its commitment and relying on surrounding counties to make up the difference."
Sun staff writers Allison Klein and Gerard Shields contributed to this article.