Baltimore plans to reduce the number of firefighters who initially respond to alarms to free up more staff for emergency medical calls.
Baltimore plans to reduce the number of firefighters who initially respond to alarms to free up more staff for emergency medical calls. (Gene Sweeney Jr. / Baltimore Sun)

Last week the Baltimore City Fire Department confirmed a change to their operational guidelines that will reduce the number of firefighters who will respond initially to alarm calls. The change is being piloted as the department grapples with the rising number of emergency medical calls for service and consecutive years of going over budget due to overtime spending. This problem is not isolated to just Baltimore City, as 85% of fire department calls across the country are for emergency medical services. The critical question that needs to be answered as this situation continues to develop is, will the fire department be able to maintain current staffing and service delivery levels without compromising safety?

To answer that question, you have to understand the history of the problem. Over 25 years ago the fire department was staffed at approximately 2,600 firefighters and emergency medical personnel. Today, there are approximately 1,500 personnel. In the early 1990s, City Hall and the fire union agreed on schedule changes to create a fourth shift; prior to that, fire department personnel were assigned to a three-shift schedule. At the time, staffing levels could support a fourth shift, but throughout the years, advancements in fire code regulations and prevention efforts led to a decline in fires. This prompted past administrations to disband units and close fire stations. As companies closed, those additional positions were eliminated from the department’s budget. As a result, the fire department's current staffing can't adequately support the four-shift structure.

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As this situation continues to develop, there are two challenges that need to be addressed to find a resolution to this problem. First, the fire department administration has to figure out a way to stay within their budget while making sure that there are adequate units available to respond to emergency medical calls for service. The current plan that is being piloted is supposed to address that concern, but it will not solve the problem. The second challenge is a historical one, and that is convincing union officials and members within the organization that current staffing levels won’t decline like they have in the past when operational changes have occurred.

The good news is, today's firefighters are more credentialed then those of the past, meaning that they can be utilized to support the rise of emergency medical calls for service by riding on medic units. That practice became a point of contention a few months ago as union officials warned that communities lacked adequate fire coverage as the fire administration put fire companies out of service to have personnel work on reserve medic units.

An internal answer to this problem is to have the fire administration and fire unions negotiate a new shift schedule that would eliminate the fourth shift and put firefighters and emergency medical personnel on a three-shift, 24 hours on and 48 hours off work schedule. Currently there are approximately 275 people on each shift. By eliminating the fourth shift, personnel could be reassigned to other shifts to fill vacancies, and the extra staff that would remain each day could work on medic units without putting companies out of service or compromising safety.

Externally, the fire department needs to create a public education campaign that teaches people when to use 9-1-1 for medical emergencies so that units aren’t tied up on so many non-emergency calls. Built into that public education campaign needs to be an engagement piece that discusses using alternative modes of transportation for non-emergency calls, similar to ride share partnership programs that are being used in other jurisdictions.

So, will the current pilot program work? Only time will tell. But what I can say is that it can only be a short-term fix to a long-term problem. The emergency medical service system was taxed well beyond its capacity before this issue was made public. And if we’re truly concerned about not compromising the safety of residents and first responders, then some tough decisions need to be made about our investment into emergency medical services.

Samuel Johnson is the former spokesman and chief communications officer of the Baltimore City Fire Department. His email is samuel.johnson1220@gmail.com.

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