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Less than $1 million would be saved from fire company closings

By combining different budget items, administration suggested that the fire company closings would save nearly $9 million.

fire chief james clack

“If I thought what we are doing is worse, I wouldn’t do it,” said Fire Chief James Clack, taking heat last night from his proposed fire closings.

Photo by: Mark Reutter

Baltimore Fire Chief James Clack disclosed last night that $971,000 – or less than 0.5% of the department’s budget – would be saved by disbanding three fire companies, including the “heroes” of last Sunday’s rescue of three children from a burning house.

Prior to this statement, drawn out in a City Council hearing, the mayor’s budget office had lumped together fire company closures with a firefighters’ wage freeze, coming up with a savings of $8.8 million in budget documents.

This higher figure has been widely cited as the savings that would be achieved by the permanent shutdown of Squad 11 in Bayview, Truck 15 in East Baltimore and Truck 10, which played a critical role in Sunday’s rescue in West Baltimore.

The rescue – which The Brew reconstructed through eyewitness accounts and departmental records – was often referred to in last night’s hearing.

In his introductory remarks, Chief Clack cited the incident as an example of the extraordinary work done by the Baltimore Fire Department.

Calling it “a very scary fire” with a near miraculous outcome, Clack said, “I am very proud to be chief of this department. The men and women, they do a spectacular job.”

Present System “Not Sustainable”

When several Council members asked Clack to square his praise for the force with his plan to reduce the number of fire companies, the chief said that the permanent closures were preferable to the present system of rotating fire station closings to save money.

Firefighters during Sunday's rescue of three children from a burning building. (Courtesy of Nick Eid at recon2photo)

Firefighters during Sunday's rescue of three children from a burning building. (Courtesy of Nick Eid at recon2photo)

“If I thought what we are doing is worse, I wouldn’t do it,” he told Councilman Bill Henry.

In the best possible world, he continued, Baltimore should retain all 55 fire companies and end the practice of rotating closures.

But confronted with the reality of a very tight budget, Clack said, he was required to make decisions that best protected citizen safety.

“In my professional opinion, and I am not alone, . . . rotating closures are not sustainable” because they involve constant rescheduling and coordination.

Over the long term, he said, the permanent closures would save the city an estimated $3.8 million, including the liabilities for the health care and pensions of 66 employees.

Members of the closed companies would be absorbed into other companies, but ultimately there would be a reduction of 66 firefighting positions. (A Baltimore fire company has 22 members.)

Dixon Rejected Permanent Closings

He revealed in his testimony that he has been privately pushing for permanent closures ever since the city’s budget crisis began in 2009. (Clack was hired in 2008 by then-Mayor Sheila Dixon after he had gained national exposure as the Minneapolis fire chief during a major 2007 bridge collapse).

Clack said he pressed for permanent company closures in 2009, but Dixon instead opted for rotating station closures. Clack said such a solution should be temporary – “a year or less” – but has continued until now under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Referring to Rawlings-Blake , Clack said, “The mayor could tell me, ‘Continue rotating closures,’ and I would do it.”

Truck 10 would be disbanded under the proposed Rawlings-Blake budget. Engine 8 (at left in station house) would remain. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Truck 10 would be disbanded under the proposed Rawlings-Blake budget. Engine 8 (at left in station house) would remain. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Clack, who did not attend last week’s Council hearing on the closures, faced skeptical questions and frequent pronouncements that his plan was flawed.

Councilman William “Pete” Welch, whose Harlem Park district is served by Truck 10, said, “I can’t imagine that fire company not being here.”

He said that the company serves a very poor area with a large number of vacant houses and the largest number of seniors in the city.

“The seniors are scared to death” about the company closing. Welch said.

“God Sent a Sign”

Clack responded that all 55 fires stations would remain open under his plan – in West Baltimore, for example, Engine 8 and Truck 16 would cover for disbanded Truck 10.

The fire department has prepared a map, based on computer simulations, showing that the proposed company closures would have no effect on fire response times by the city, Clack said.

Budget chairwoman Helton Holton asked Clack to return to the committee with the map in a future, not-yet-scheduled hearing.

Councilman Warren Branch, chair of the public safety committee, said that “God sent a sign when he saved those three children’s lives.”

In an emotional statement, Branch urged the chief to find a way to keep the companies open and added, “If someone – a fatality occurs – I will have to hold your department responsible.”

Under the city charter, the City Council cannot add funds to the annual city budget without the administration’s concurrence.

However, the Council has the power to reject the budget and undertake negotiations with the mayor to make budget adjustments.

We Have the Funds, says Jack Young

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young referred to that process last night by saying, “I’m challenging my Council colleagues to make history . . . We have to start representing the people. Our duty and responsibility is to make sure public safety is not compromised.”

Young said a 1% cut “for all top agencies” could result in more than enough funds to keep the fire companies open and to end the rotating closures.

All 14 members of the Council attended last night’s hearing. None of the members directly responded to Young’s statement, but Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said that the city already has the funds if it reapplied the two-cent reduction in the property tax rate to these programs.

The mayor’s proposed tax reduction would reduce general fund revenues by $3.8 million, according to administration projections.

The mayor has signaled that she supports the fire company closures as a necessity to balance the budget and, so far, has not indicated that she would compromise on the issue.

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  • BudgetHawk410

    Actually, the $971k represents the difference between contining rotating closures and implementing permanent closures.  Rotating closures save the city roughly $4.5 million annually.  If rotating closures were switched to permanent closures (with ZERO service impact), the savings would jump to around $5.4m annually.

    • ocmann

       I’m not sure how there could be a nearly $1M difference between rotating closures and permanent closures. Both closure models eliminate 12 positions daily. The apparatus eliminated in the permanent model will be recycled into the department’s fleet at other locations. The facilities will remain open for other companies. So please explain how there is a one million dollar added savings in permanent closures.

      • BudgetHawk410

        The difference is permanent closures elimates (as opposed to not paying an overtime rate for the position) positions associated with the corresponding company that is recommended for closure, whereas rotating closures simply close the company while keeping the 12 positions on the Department’s payroll.  The Department does not currently have the staffing compliment necessary to staff all 55 companies in the city without having to rely on overtime pay to keep three remaining companies open.   The difference between eliminating positions associated with three companies and simply not paying the overtime rate is roughly the dollar amout cited in this article.

  • Dcmusicpro

    The Mayor can come out on top of all of this, she can send Clack packing, there has to be another weak structured bridge in Minnesota for him to put his name on. He is known for ” the bridge collapse ” in Minnesota and he will be forever remembered in Baltimore as the guy who caused the greatest fire department in the nation to crumble and fall, how ironic.i

    • Lhigh

       Clack isn’t even a firefighter. He was a paramedic. The man has never fought a fire and yet he is chief. INSANE.

  • LetsTalkNumbers

    @2cd1eae3c7e5df75761008cfb2663656:disqus, unless there is something I’m not understanding, this is how it works right now:

    Rotating closures = $X ‘savings’ from the budget by not funding three fire companies in the budget.  They are then closed on a rotating basis.
    Permanent closures = $X ‘savings’ from the budget by not funding three specific fire companies in the budget. 

    The fire department maintains a minimum staffing on 24 hour shifts, 7 days a week.  The rotating closures eliminate the staffing of three of those units, rotated daily.  The permanent closures eliminate the staffing of three specific units.  The amount of money saved would not increase or decrease based on this plan, either way 3 companies are not funded or staffed on a daily basis.  Explain how you came to an almost $1 million in savings by still funding the same amount of positions every day.

  • glsever

    Aww, Warren Branch actually said something newsworthy!  Good for him!

  • bcfdlt

    The 1 million difference is in the elimination of 78 positions (26 per company) from the budget.  Included in this is the elimination of 15 officer positions from which 21 current officers would be demoted to their previous rank, which aslo means a reduction in pay.  Hope this helps

  • Public Safety FIRST

    Administrator Clack came in under the Dixon administration, as we all know Sheila Dixon never made the wisest choices , Mayor Blake should have unloaded all of Dixon’s dead weight right from the beginning. The sad thing is, Mayor Blake is actually a good person who has the city of Baltimore in her heart but she is standing on the side lines allowing Clack to destroy her reputation and her Fire Department. Mayor Blake please show those who voted for you and those who live and pay taxes in Baltimore City that you have us in your best interest by getting rid of Clack,he has no ties here, he does not care about the people here and certainly does not care about the Hero’s in the city ( Fire Fighters and Paramedics )…. he is nothing more then a product of ex-Mayor “Steala”  Dixon.

  • Hlfranklin

    This map model they are referring to is a static model. This model doesn’t take into account that other companies might already be on another call. This model is “best case scenario”. This model only works in theory not in real life. Everyone’s safety will be affected if any closures, rotating or permanent, continue. It’s not just fire emergencies but also medical emergencies that these units respond to. All fire apparatus are staffed with members trained in emergency medical response. Some are paramedics and can give medicine well before an ambulance can get there. They can start CPR when minutes count. If that was your family lying there, would you want to have to wait for the next closest truck or engine? I don’t think so.

  • Johnnie882

     In 2009 when I retired from the Fire Department, 7.5 million was taken OUT of our budget to give to the Police Department along with additional monies from the City and Federal money. Why don’t they just add the money back into the Fire Department? They took it easy enough! We do need a new Chief, one who has ties to Baltimore not another national search. Why? They didn’t hire the best candidate the last time who had dual Master degrees not just a Bachelors! The Fire Department is a very proud department with good firemen and paramedics. It’s not a job but a calling and commitment to the citizens of Baltimore

  • LetsTalkNumbers

    The proposed plan does not eliminate 76 positions.  It redistributes the personnel to assignment at other companies.
    There is no overtime savings as the department maintains minimum staffing at units.  Because the department already operates with 3 less companies per day because of rotating closures, it would continue to operate with 3 less companies due to permanent closures.  The same number of personnel would be necessary on a daily basis.
    The demotion of 21 officers equates to roughly $147,000 in ‘savings’ on paper ($7K per officer x 21 officers).  However, what has not been taken into account is that would leave officer vacancies.  Floating officers, for example, fill positions where an officer is off long term, because of sickness, injury, or other reason.  Without these extra officers, more officer callbacks would be created.  Every future officer callback or firefighter paid acting pay to fill an officer vacancy would consistently eat away at that $147,000 savings.  If there was one officer callback in just one of the two shifts each day, the savings would be erased and in fact cut into after 10 months as an additional expenditure.

    • BudgetHawk410

      read the budget book, my friend.  The proposal eliminates 66 positions including 12 officers.  No personnel will be redistrubuted. 

  • Baltohook

    As a firefighter I must say its an eye opener to see the city place a pricetag on how much it will save by closing these companies. Heres the facts folks! In 2011 Truck 10 responded to 2269 calls, Truck 15 3556 calls and Squad 11 1259 calls. Thats a total of 7084 incidents! Who will handle these calls once these companies are closed? Yes, I realize the plan is for Engine 33 to be relocated to Truck 15, but Engine 33 handled 2977 calls alone in 2011! Who will handle those now? Truck 5? They handled 2765 calls in 2011! This tactic will create a negative domino effect citywide that will most likely cause a delay in response for fire/rescue services and greatly impact the safety of our first responders! Its a no brainer! You cant put a pricetag on lives of your citizens or the first responders that protect them! Is a million dollars worth a life?

  • Theclockstrikes13

    “Warren Branch for Mayor”, Thank God it is not cold outside, the tables will be turned, and all can plainly see…..

  • LetsTalkNumbers

    BudgetHawk410, I’d love a chance to sit down with you and debate the budget book, but I do not know where to find it.  The fact is, as I’m sure you’re aware, these numbers are very much manipulated. 
    My conclusions are based off of what facts have been openly distributed to the public.  Here is a quote from Fire Chief James S. Clack in the Baltimore Sun: “We’re not laying off any firefighters,” Clack said. “We’re not closing
    any fire stations. We’re taking some firefighters from one area of the
    city and moving them to other stations.” (Baltimore Fire Department identifies three companies to close, Two ladder trucks and one engine will be taken out of service, 72 firefighters transferred, The Baltimore Sun, by Luke Broadwater, April 5, 2012, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/breaking/bs-md-ci-clack-closures-20120405,0,11542.story).
    This article goes on to explain: “Under the current plan, 72 firefighters would be transferred and 21
    officers would be demoted, including six captains and nine lieutenants.
    The changes, Clack said, make the department more efficient and could
    improve response times.” (Supra).
    Assuming without argument that the ‘budget book’ does clearly eliminate 66 positions, those positions must be budgeted positions that nobody currently occupies.  For example, roughly 50 positions are budgeted every year for a Fire Academy recruit class, whether or not anyone is hired.  These positions are in the budget regardless of whether or not anyone occupies them.  So a shrewd budgetary official could proclaim they ‘eliminated’ 50 positions from the budget by not hiring a class.
    My estimates are based off the public knowledge disseminated through the media and other outlets.  Chief Clack’s plan ‘eliminates’ 6 captains and 9 lieutenants by closing 3 companies.  However, the 6 captains do not ‘disappear.’  They are not fired or laid off.  They are to be demoted to lieutenant.  That in turn further demotes 6 lieutenants to the ranks they previously held and so on. 
    So you can see that having the same number of people on the payroll that you had the previous fiscal year can only save you the money that is eliminated by reducing their rank by the difference in pay between those ranks, multiplied in the aggregate by the number of personnel effected. 
    If you end the fiscal year with 1700 people and begin the new fiscal year with 1700 people but 21 of those people are being paid less, you can only claim savings from paying those 21 people less in their base salary.  This is especially true when you’re staffing the exact same number of companies in the field, whether it be through the use of rotating closures or permanent ones.
    Finally, I appreciate your point of view and hope to engage you in the future in spirited debate with no hard feelings.  Unfortunately, your point of view is not supported by the facts at hand.

  • Unellu

    That is why we need audits.  We are constantly subjected to the machinations of pols who are not mathematicians and we are told that money will be saved when we have no irrefutable proof that it has actually been saved when the mayhem of cuts has been wrought.  The budgetary woes of any city arise from fragmented management.  The left hand simply does know what the right hand has been doing and cooked up, souped up accounting seems to be the norm.  I call it the JP MORGAN CHASING of that pie in the sky called a balanced budget.  

  • Fire and Metal

    Chief Clack has no idea how to provide fire and EMS protection in a big east coast city, he is trying to set Baltimore up to be protected like Mineapolis – where he is from.  It is a fundemantally flawed plan.  East coast city’s are more densely populated and have much older construction.  Clack did not present a public safety plan he presented a public opinion plan.  He announced his changes – then quickly changed them as public opinion swayed. 

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