Mayor Martin O'Malley used the dedication of a firehouse yesterday to push his proposal to close seven other fire stations citywide, as city firefighters picketed out front in protest of his plan.
O'Malley said the opening of the $2.5 million firehouse in Northeast Baltimore did not contradict his proposal to close the other stations, which has been criticized by community groups, union officials and some City Council members.
The new firehouse -- a prototype for at least two future stations -- is consistent with his plan to make fire operations more efficient, the mayor said.
"We have a number of single-use stations around the city that are venerable neighborhood places, but they're not really effective when it comes to fighting fires," O'Malley said.
By contrast, he said, the new station "will make us faster, better and more responsive" by putting an engine company, truck company and medic unit under one roof.
The 14,000-square-foot firehouse, at Kirk Avenue and East 25th Street, has been in operation since March. Yesterday's dedication presented an opportunity for the mayor and union officials to present their arguments regarding the plan for closings, which was announced May 10.
O'Malley said the incidence of fires decreased 60 percent in the city from 1994 to last year while the need for emergency medical services has "dramatically increased." He repeated his assertion that fire operations need to be consolidated into fewer stations so that more money can be devoted to paramedic services.
The mayor acknowledged that the station-closing proposal has alarmed some residents but said a change is needed in a city where crime and drug abuse have placed severe demands on the ambulance fleet.
In the past, he said, "we haven't had the guts to change, to reform, to add more medical units."
Before the dedication, firefighters walked up and down the block in front of the new brick-clad, green-roofed building, carrying signs criticizing O'Malley's plan.
Firefighter Carlos Olaguer, a spokesman for Baltimore Firefighters Local 734, said the demonstration was not a gesture of opposition to the firehouse, but to closings that Olaguer said would eliminate jobs and compromise public safety.
"We used to be able to contain a fire to one room," he said. "We don't have the bodies and the manpower to get there early enough to stop a fire where it started."
The new firehouse includes touches not generally found in old stations, such as a community room for area residents and separate male and female locker rooms.
Ten firefighters and medics are scheduled to be on duty at the firehouse at any given time, four in Engine Company 33, four in Truck Company 5 and two in Medic Unit 16.
Similar stations are planned for West Baltimore and Locust Point.