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City Council won't take up Baltimore Fire budget without plan to solve medic shortage, reduce overtime

City Councilmen Brandon Scott and Eric Costello warned Baltimore’s fire chief Thursday that they do not intend to move his department’s $286 million annual budget forward this summer until it provides a “formal written plan” to resolve its shortage of medics and reduce spending on overtime.

They also asked fire Chief Niles Ford for a “facilities update and plan for each of Baltimore’s fire stations,” citing deteriorated and “unacceptable” conditions that have been found.

“We look forward to receiving the requested information and stand ready to help you with anything within our power as Council members to improve the Fire Department,” wrote Scott, the public safety committee chair, and Costello, the budget committee chair. “However, we will not move the department’s budget until we receive a plan which we deem adequate — including a comprehensive schedule, cost estimates, and funding sources.”

The Fire Department responded with a statement saying it was in talks about preparing a proposal with “various short, intermediate and long-term actions” to address the issues raised by the councilmen, and “exploring the possibility” of hiring an outside consultant to study its operations, including its use of overtime.

The department said it will be meeting with the finance department to discuss “potential parameters and visions” for the study.

The department also said it has developed an inspection schedule for all department facilities that will allow it to identify “necessary repair needs” alongside other entities like the Department of General Services, and resolve them in a “timely and efficient manner.”

The exchange follows several oversight hearings in which Scott and Costello have pressed fire officials for answers on the issues outlined in their letter.

Last month, The Baltimore Sun reported that the Fire Department was paying overtime to fill nearly a third of its firefighter and medic shifts every day, and blowing through its overtime budget in the process. The department has relied heavily on volunteer “call backs,” in which firefighters or medics who have just finished a shift are asked to return for another.

Partly as a result, the department already had exhausted its $11.2 million overtime budget by last month, with more than three months left on the fiscal year calendar. Last year, it spent more than $18.2 million on overtime, surpassing a $10 million overtime budget.

At times, firefighters who also are certified as medics are being reassigned from scheduled fire suppression shifts to understaffed medic units.

The firefighters union — International Association of Firefighters Local 734 — said on Twitter earlier this month that the staff shortages and shift swapping harm the department’s response to fires.

More: Baltimore firefighters union complains of more shortages; fire department says it's working to address staffing »

Costello, in a statement, said such shifting of resources must not continue.

“The Fire Department’s continued shifting of musical chairs to reduce fire suppression resources in an effort to supplant EMS is both fiscally irresponsible and more importantly, should not be necessary,” he said. “The Fire Department must take immediate steps to reign in overtime spending and create a fiscally sustainable plan to ensure that it is positioned to continue to provide the top notch services our citizens have come to expect.”

Scott, in his own statement, called that the department’s “refusal and unwillingness to present a comprehensive plan” to resolve the staffing and overtime issues unacceptable.

“Providing efficient and effective service through the fire department is extremely important to Baltimore, especially as we are in the midst of the ongoing opioid crisis,” he said.

In the letter to Ford, which the councilmen also sent to acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, they wrote that providing the Fire Department with the resources and funding it needs remains a priority.

The council is set to begin considering the Fire Department’s budget in early June. The department’s budget request for the next fiscal year, starting July 1, represents an increase of nearly $14 million, or 5 percent, over the current budget.

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