For the past two weeks, longer if you ask city union officials, five of Baltimore’s 17 fire truck companies have been out of service. Why? Because five of the trucks they rely on to battle blazes are out of commission for repairs, and there are no backups.
That revelation was one of several that came during a Baltimore City Council hearing Wednesday to discuss the city’s aging fire fleet. Officials with the city’s two fire unions pushed for the hearing, sending a letter to Councilman Mark Conway in October calling the current condition of the fleet “dangerous.”
“The current state of the fleet of apparatus in the Baltimore City Fire Department is precarious,” wrote Josh Fannon and Rich Langford, the presidents of the unions that represent Baltimore’s fire officers and also rank-and-file members.
The city’s fire department leadership, just days removed from the abrupt resignation of Chief Niles Ford last Friday, tried to assure members of the council’s Public Safety and Government Operations Committee that reinforcements are on the way. Since 2014, the city has been steadily investing in fire equipment, buying new trucks, engines and EMS vehicles, they said. But efforts have been waylaid recently by supply chain shortages and increasing costs for equipment that must be met by a static budget.
“We’re doing the best with what we can to provide services to the citizens of Baltimore,” said Assistant Chief Charles Svehla, one of three acting chiefs filling in for Ford.
Baltimore budgets $24 million annually, funds it borrows, for the replacement of vehicles across all city departments. The Department of General Services, which manages the city’s fleet, typically tries not to give any more than 25% to any particular department, said Director Berke Attila, although public safety is generally given priority.
That figure has not increased since 2014 despite rising costs and a recent spike in inflation, Attila said.
City fire equipment quickly gobbles up the fire department’s annual share of that budget. Firetrucks, which are equipped with ladders and rescue equipment, cost about $1.5 million each, fire officials said Wednesday. Fire engines run about $850,000, while medical vehicles cost about $300,000 each.
The wait time for such specialized equipment has always been lengthy, but the coronavirus pandemic has increased the lag exponentially. What was once a 12- to 15-month process now takes up to 2 1/2 years, officials told the council.
The result is a fire fleet that is showing its age. The National Fire Protection Association calls for fire vehicles to be used no more than 10 years as front-line pieces of equipment. After that, the group recommends moving equipment to reserves where it can have another 10 years of life.
The average age of Baltimore’s firetrucks is 11.4 years, officials reported. Engines average about 10 years. The city’s medic units, which local fire officials said have a three-year front-line life, average 6.2 years in age.
Baltimore currently has no firetrucks available in reserve due to mechanical issues with trucks that typically serve as backups, leaving five fully staffed companies off the streets. Fire union officials said 11 of the city’s 32 engine companies are operating with reserve trucks because front-line trucks are under maintenance.
Councilman Zeke Cohen asked the department for a timeline showing how and when new equipment is expected to be brought into service. The councilman also issued a stern warning to fire leadership in the wake of a damning report issued late last week detailing a lack of policies and poor communication during the response to a January fire that killed three city firefighters and seriously injured a fourth.
Maryland Policy & Politics
“I’m deeply concerned about the overall functioning of this department at this moment,” Cohen said. “We just read a report that was extensive that showed patterns and practices that I would say is shoddy management, shoddy leadership. Folks lost their lives as a result. I think from the top down we need to make sure we are focused on first procurement and making sure we have equipment.”
Council members also noted there have been lags in getting the city’s fire equipment repaired.
Attila, the general services director, said 40 of the city’s 135 mechanic positions are vacant. Hiring has been a challenge because the city competes with private companies that maintain fleets such as Amazon and FedEx.
Councilman Eric Costello questioned whether the fire department was awarded any of the city’s $641 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding to pay for equipment. Officials said they requested money to assist with the city’s aging fire stations, some of which are more than 100 years old, but no money was sought for equipment.
The department’s only award so far was a joint project with the Health Department to lease space to store protective gear for the coronavirus, Assistant Chief Christopher Caisse said.
“We got a $641 million pot of money and the only thing the Fire Department got was a lease on a warehouse?” Costello asked.
“Yes,” Caisse replied.