AFL-CIO president denounces plan to close 7 firehouses; Minority neighborhoods could suffer, he warns


Mayor Martin O'Malley's plan to close seven firehouses was denounced yesterday by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who warned that the closings could particularly harm minority neighborhoods.

"One hundred and fifty jobs -- good union jobs, jobs with a future, jobs that the citizens of Baltimore could fill with pride -- will be lost, and that is a crime," said Sweeney, speaking at a Baltimore conference of firefighters from throughout the United States and Canada.

"I hope this is not a trend on the part of the city to ignore the needs of certain groups of citizens," he said.

Under the plan, which O'Malley announced Wednesday, the 140 firefighters from the closed stations would be reassigned to medical units or to other firehouses. The mayor said the Fire Department's estimated 150 vacancies probably will not be filled.

Sweeney's audience didn't need much convincing. When a baseball bat autographed by Cal Ripken was presented to International Association of Fire Fighters General President Alfred K. Whitehead, someone yelled from the back of the room, "Take it up to the mayor's office and break it in, Al!"

Sweeney pledged AFL-CIO support for the battle against the plan, which is opposed by community groups and residents in affected neighborhoods.

The Lakewood Chase Community Association in East Baltimore held a protest yesterday evening in the 1200 block of Montford Ave. Another rally was scheduled in Pigtown at noon today in front of a station that would be closed.

Supporters of the plan said it is needed to finance additional paramedic units and for pay raises for firefighters and police officers.

The proposal was formulated by a committee made up of members of two business groups, the Presidents' Roundtable and the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Told of Sweeney's remarks, O'Malley said, "I don't know Mr. Sweeney, and he doesn't know me, but his primary goal is to protect union jobs, and my primary goal is to protect lives."

Noting that the firefighters' conference took place at the nonunion Hyatt Regency Hotel at the Inner Harbor, O'Malley added, "The next time [Sweeney] comes to town to lecture me about the orthodoxy of preserving union jobs, he should do it from a union hotel."

The plan to close the stations comes as the city and its firefighters are negotiating a contract to replace the labor agreement that expires June 30. The proposal is one of the many factors to be considered as the City Council works on the city's budget, which is to be voted on next month.

Stephan G. Fugate, president of Baltimore Fire Officers Association Local 964, said the closings would increase response times. A delay of two to four minutes, Fugate said, could allow a one-room fire to become a buildingwide blaze.

"There's no question the medic unit service is too small," Fugate said. "But what the mayor is failing to acknowledge is that our [Fire Department] is staffed with people trained, equipped and capable of basic life support."

Council President Sheila Dixon said she was studying how the plan would affect emergency response. She said she has suggested to O'Malley that full-service stations be established in parts of the city that are in particular need of emergency services.

Sun staff writer Allison Klein contributed to this article.

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