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Finding money for fire companies isn’t hard, but the politics are

ANALYSIS: It's easier to cut fire services to poor neighborhoods than tackle the racial tensions and administrative fat in the Fire Department.

jim clack

Fire Chief James Clack speaking before the City Council in May.

Photo by: Mark Reutter

If keeping Baltimore’s fire companies open were just a money problem, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake could find the solution within the fire department’s own budget.

But navigating the tricky racial politics of a majority-white department in a majority-black city appears to have rendered such easy fixes off-limits.

Still, reducing essential city services in predominately black communities is itself a scorching symbol of the priorities of Mayor Rawlings-Blake and her fire chief, James S. Clack.

The disbandment of three companies – two of them serving Harlem Park/Sandtown and Berea/Clifton that contain several thousand fire-prone vacant rowhouses – was originally set to take effect on Sunday. It has been delayed to July 5 because the city realized that the companies were needed after Friday’s bad storm and power outages.

Permanently closing the companies will save the city around $750,000 in the coming fiscal year.

That sum is roughly equal to a unit of the fire department called Fire and Emergency Community Outreach.

Never heard of FECO?

It operates a mobile safety center that “provides outreach and education to the city’s residents, businesses and visitors on fire safety,” according to the city budget report.

The unit also supports Operation CARE, “a joint effort with the Health Department to intervene with frequent 911 callers.”

Setting Priorities

Using scarce funds to help people learn safety tips and use 911 calls more wisely – while disbanding firefighting units that actually save lives on the streets and in homes – has prompted severe criticism within the department, amplified online via Facebook and Twitter.

Let’s look at the numbers.

In fiscal 2011, the CARE program handled 342 incidents, while the mobile safety center “attended” 526 events.

This compares to 3,556 emergency calls made by East Baltimore’s Truck Company 15 alone.

Truck 10 and Squad 11 made some 5,000 additional runs, with Truck 10 credited with recently helping to rescue three children trapped in a burning house.

Recruiting When There’s No Openings?

FECO also handles efforts to recruit new members to the fire department.

Again a worthy task in the abstract, but arguably not the highest priority in fiscal 2013 when the department is under a de-facto hiring freeze.

Eliminate FECO and you’ll have the money to keep on Truck 15, Truck 10 and Squad 11 intact.

Or, as an alternative, make some cuts in the top-heavy administration of the fire department.

Racial Politics at Play

To reallocate money within a department, Mayor Rawlings-Blake just needs to submit a transfer of funds request to the City Council and Board of Estimates. Both bodies rubber stamp such requests.

It’s done all the time.

But the prospect of this actually happening in the fire department is low because of the politics at play.

FECO has become the unhappy home of Lloyd Carter, a fire officer who filed a racial discrimination suit last December against Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Fire Chief James Clack and others.

Carter alleges that he has been passed over for promotions several times, including as fire chief, because of his race.

Clack created a new position for Carter – Deputy Chief of Recruitment – last year, and in the latest budget, Clack has stuck him in FECO.

Carter will have a recruitment budget of $450,000, including his own salary and benefits of over $120,000, according to the city budget report.

One Deputy Chief Becomes Two

Clack made another recent decision that impacts on the disbandment of the three fire companies.

Last November, he resurrected the position of assistant fire chief of planning and administration – a post that  was eliminated during the budget cuts of 2010 – and installed Dickson J. Henry. At the same time, Jeffrey R. Segal was appointed to succeed retiring assistant fire chief Donald Heinbuch.

By so doing, the chief replaced one white deputy chief with two African American deputy chiefs, each of whom received an $11,000 salary hike in the process.

The result: the top-tier salaries at the department have increased $140,000 in a period of austerity. Overall, the budget for “Administration – Fire” will increase 27% this coming year, from $13.1 million to nearly $17 million.

Expanding Administration

While some of the increase comes from the reallocation of pension and workers compensation costs to administration, it also reflects an expanding corps of headquarters bureaucrats presiding over a shrinking department.

Truck 15 is set to disband after 104 years of service in East Baltimore. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Truck 15 is set to disband after 104 years of service in East Baltimore. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Then there’s the decision by Mayor Rawlings-Blake to retain the 66 firefighters of the disbanded companies.

The firefighters will lose their companies, but NOT their wages. No employee will be furloughed.

All will be absorbed into other fire companies, a decision that makes Carter’s efforts to recruit firefighters from minority neighborhoods more difficult because of the surplus of personnel with seniority.

The bottom line is that the public will reap a lower level of safety – and black youth will have less opportunity to become firefighters – while less than 0.04% of the city’s $2.3 billion 2013 operating budget will be cut.

45 Companies Disbanded

The Baltimore City Fire Department once consisted of 59 engine companies (four using boats), 30 truck companies, 11 battalions, 4 hose companies, 4 chemical companies, 2 water towers, 12 ambulances and sworn personnel at a repair shop and fire alarm office.

Over the years, the department has lost 23 engine companies, 12 truck companies, 4 battalions, 4 hose companies, 4 chemical companies, 2 water towers and a repair shop as a result of budget reductions.

 

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  • Carol Ott

    Bottom line, these political games and the refusal of our current administration to put residents first, means that the rest of us suffer.  I hope and pray for the day when citizens get angry enough to demand better from their elected officials and agency heads — and stop allowing our city to deteriorate because of poor policy and planning by city officials.

    A fully-funded fire department is critical to the lives and safety of residents and tourists, business owners and commuters.   The City recently “found” and additional $7 million in the coffers, and applied it to the 2013 budget — why wasn’t part of that money used to fund these three truck companies?

    I just want to remind our city council and mayor — you have the opportunity to be the “good guys” — do you really want to be remembered as the folks who gutted our fire department?  Or do you want to be remembered as the ones who admitted it was a poor decision and did the right thing in the end?

    Because residents will remember, and I hope they act accordingly, come 2016.

  • MC

    Closing fire companies, and stations, is an emotional issue that brings strong reactions, but it has to be done.  When I was young, we still had a call box on the corner, now we have a 911 system hooked to computerized dispatch, GPS and mobile technology on engines, breathing aperatus, infrared scanners, jaws of life… the notion that there has to be a fire company within screaming distance of every neighborhood is comforting, but simply outdated.  Medical calls now far outnumber fire calls, a large portion of the calls referenced in the article were actually medical calls. When no ambulances are available, as is frequently the case, fire companies are sent instead.  Ideally we would have more ambulances and paramedics, not fire companies responding to calls chest pains.

    With regard to the safety outreach and CARES, these are probably the most important thing BCFD does, and kudos to their doing a great job at community outreach. 

    So many fire injuries are entirely preventable, if more people had the tools and took responsibility to safety.  In the old days, we learned this stuff in school.  How many fellow Brew readers don’t have smoke detectors on every floor, and every bedroom?  

    EMS is picking up the same whinos and folks who don’t manage their conditions week after week, at enormous expense to taxpayers.  Anything we could do to get these folks into better care, saves reasources, and lives.

    • Brigby7

      While what you say may be true as a generalization, it is not true in Baltimore. I was a medic there for a long time and yes, there are a tremendous number of EMS calls, but it is also very busy with actual fire calls – which is not the case in many departments across the country. The bottom line, what saves lives in Baltimore is fire and EMS units. If you got rid of ALL of the upper eschelon and gave their jobs to the deputy and battalion chiefs, I bet you would have a dramatically more efficient department.

    • concerned FF

      You must be an idiot, you state that EMS calls out number
      fire calls and you are right, which stands the reason you need more fire companies.
      So what happens when the companies are out dealing with medical emergencies in
      their response area and a house catches fire in the same response area???? I’ll
      tell you, the next fire company that was put out of service as a cost cutting
      measure is gone, The next company up is now 6 minutes away instead of 3 minutes
      away the fire goes from a room and contents to a 2nd or 3rd alarm, now the public’s
      safety is at risk as well as the firefighters, because now if a firefighter
      needs help it will take longer for them to get assistance. Then the public sues
      the fire department a firefighter needs to be retired or god forbid dies, this
      is the domino effect that politicians don’t take into consideration when making
      decisions that affect the residents or the Firefighters who risk their lives
      every time they go out the door. What kind of savings are worth that??????

    • Gerald Neily

      I’m sorry MC, but I must disagree with your contention that it is less important for the Fire Department to actually fight fires and respond to calls than “outreach and CARES”.

    • Carol Ott

       As a resident of Baltimore City, I have to disagree with you about the outreach program. 

      I would much rather have a fire department that is equipped to fight fires and respond to emergencies than a fire department that has been reduced to little more than free rides to the ER for junkies and babysitters for those who think it’s a good idea to use portable generators inside the living room — my guess is the folks who actually need outreach aren’t paying attention, and those who don’t need it are in the majority.

      We need to keep all fire companies open — if you’re advocating for closures, and you live in Baltimore City, you might want to keep in mind that your home isn’t fireproof and your family isn’t immune to emergency medical situations — is this a risk you’re really willing to take?

      • Squeaky Wheel

        I have to agree with Ott, you need to keep companies in service. A non breathing or Priorty 1 has minutes to live. If the department uses response standard truthfully you would see a change in response proficiency. 911 connect times can exceed 2mins, turnout time 60-90seconds…that leaves you 4-5min response times or less. The great dart chart does not take all that into consideration.

    • joe

      MC, My friend, you are clueless about the job of firefighting and emergency medicine. I hope you never need the services of the BCFD, because you would be in for a rude awkening.  Just courious, could you explain to me how having a Hurst tool or GPS is going to get somebody’s family out of that 3rd floor bedroom when the there is fire and smoke on the lower floors.

    • Squeaky Wheel

      If you know anything about fire prevention or life safety education than you know economics has a lot do with it. Look at all the metro departments with with declining revenues and you will see an increase in fire incidence. You will also see a spike in arson, so please teel me how prevention plays to prevent arson?

  • Haligans

    Interestingly, the community outreach wasn’t at the Italian Festival, the Greek Festival, the St. Patrick’s Day celebration, etc. But they attended afram festival. Chief Carter has screwed up everything he puts his hands on. He routinely showed up to the fire academy when he was in charge late, wearing camouflage fatigues, choosing to go in his officeand shut the door leaving a standing order to not disturb him. He was running the academy during the cheating scandal. Yet they create a new position for him. He is on YouTube making racist remarks towards white firefighters while in uniform.

  • Where’s My Power

    I am not really sure about the wisdom of shutting down fire stations. But I would note that Operation Care, which Mark suggests could be a target for costs savings, is a good program that is cutting down on “frequent flyers” who repeatedly use the 911 system to get routine healthcare. It seems to be a smart use of funds, and I’d bet it is generating  savings to the healthcare and emergency response systems. Is it more vital than keeping stations open? Not sure, but I’d like to think it’s not either/or.

  • FF

    Sorry MC but the City already has an agencies that is supposed to recruit employees for all City agencies! It’s called the DHR. Why should the Fire Department be using it’s limited budget to do something that should allready be being done by another agency? You probably are a part of this unneeded program! Just plain dumb!

  • Bob

    The last three years baltimore city has graduated 4,100 to 4,500 students. How many are women? How many are Men? How many are physically able to do the job?  How many want to run into a burning building? But the Biggest Question is how many jobs are there available?  Chief Clack wants to change the work schedule from 4 shifts to 3 shifts,  The FD will have to lay people off because there aren’t any vacacies.  The city already has a hiring list. You won’t be able to hire any city residences for years. I would think you could hire more city residences if you went to ALL parts of the city and not just the african american parts. The city is majority black, the FD hires whomever is the most qualified. When is the majority going to stop saying they are the minority? Go to youtube and look at the video under  ”we can achieve program”  and you can see the chief spewing racist statement against white firefighters. He is saying that if you look in the firehouses you only see white faces. If the roles were reversed that would be real news. This is the chief that is SUING the city for YOUR TAX DOLLARS because he didn’t get promoted. Is this the mentality that we need in command positions in the FD? Is this how you hold a top position in the Mayors heirarchy? How does  he still have a job? This is where YOUR TAX DOLLARS are going, to hire only a SELECT MAJORITY of city residences.   As for stopping the frequent flier to the hospital you could teach that in schools. Teach when there is a real emergency, that’s when you call. Ambulances are not taxi cabs.

  • Sal

    interesting….seems to me that MC is probably one the BUMS who is hiding out in the “community outreach” division on here trying to justify his bullshit job. This is a spot for Clack to hide a couple people who were incapable of doing there jobs in the field. If you dont believe that, google “cheating scandal at the fire academy” and see who was running the show at the time. The funny thing about “community outreach” is that the fire companies have been doing this for years. They are apart of the communities they protect. theyve attended block parties and school functions or have shown  neighborhood kids around the fire engine while grabbing lunch at a local shop. This all happened without an entire division being created. Lloyd Carter is nothing more then a race hustler. he makes everything about race and pulls the race card as soon as he doesnt get his way. I think that was proven with his baseless lawsuit against the city. unfortunately the fire chief runs scared of the vulcan blazers and people like Carter. Also id like to point out to MC that you could cover every wall of every house with smoke alarms. but last time i checked, they dont take a hoseline into the building and extinguish fires nor do they throw ladders so you can escape from your 3rd floor window. When was the last time “CARES” sprung out of bed a 3am and pulled some one out of their burning home? for those of you that truly wanna see what Lloyd Carter and his cronies are doing with your tax dollars check out the video below….pay attention for his racist remarks around 2:50       

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtqxQQ8H0Yg 

    and for those of you who dont believe that Carter will play GI Joe while on the cities dime….explain this:

    http://www.recon2photo.com/BaltimoreCityFire/Fires-2012/061112-5-alarm-517-S-Broadway/23523247_3JsVdM#!i=1901992533&k=VLGDtwV 

  • Fire and Metal

    It is apalling to me that my emergency services are being compromised by closing these neighborhood firehouses while Chief Clack adds more administrators, gives his closest co- workers raises  and funds programs like community outreach that is ALREADY handled by another city agency.  That is called “job duplication” and is pure waste.  In fact everywhere else as soon as “job duplication” is identifed – it is cut out.  Only Chief Clack seems to be encouraging i 

  • Joeybullock

    To add insult to injury, Police Officers and Firefighters who were injured in the Line Of Duty had all Pension  and cost of Living Increases frozen until they reach the age of 55 years old, and then get a poultry 1 % raise. Hows that for Thank You for these brave Men and Women who put their Life on the Line each and every day. Some people may now go 10 Years without seeing any type of increase or a simple cost of Living Raise. JUST SICK ! While the Politicians continue to make sure they get theirs !!!!!!

  • Ts

    Mc: you’re an idiot. The most important thing the bcfd does is to save lives and property, not community outreach. It’s your style of screwed up priorities that have put this once great department on the downward spiral it’s now taking. You must be command staff material….

  • BCFDtruckguy

     

    MC where is your experience in this matter? “Closing fire
    companies, and stations, is an emotional issue that brings strong reactions,
    but it has to be done.” ( No it does not and in fact if you know
    anything about the world of firefighting it should not be done period.) 
    “When I was young, we still had a call box on the corner, now we have a
    911 system hooked to computerized dispatch, GPS and mobile technology on
    engines ( this is not true, we still have to use map books or our memory)
    , breathing aperatus, infrared scanners, jaws of life… the notion that there
    has to be a fire company within screaming distance of every neighborhood is
    comforting, but simply outdated”.  
    First of all, when you were young you had cotton and wool cloths and
    furniture made of wood and metal, cotton carpets wooden doors and wooden door
    frames, metal kitchen appliances and plaster and lave walls. Do you have any
    clue as to what is in your house today? Or what you wear on your body. The
    average house today is filled with synthetics poly carbonates, polystyrene foam
    and most important than anything else is PLASTICS.  In fact NIST did a comparison on Flashover (
    the phenomenon that causes a house to erupt in flames that can kill
    Firefighters let alone civilians) pre 1980’s it could take up to 16 minutes for
    a room and contents fire to flashover. Post 2007 room and contents fires take
    less than 3 minutes due to the new fuels we are all using today. Not to mention
    when the construction rebuilds these city row homes, they need to build with
    new building materials which include manufactured beams, beams that are glued
    together with GLUE (GASOLINE). Years ago it made sense to reduce the fleet
    because we did start using faster equipment and we did replace horse drawn and
    chain driven equipment. But we do not need to reduce what we have left
    ourselves with. The materials we use today are extremely flammable, and when
    there is a fire you had better hope there are several fire companies responding
    because the fires we see today cannot be handled by 1 or 2 pieces of equipment.
    Think about MC, you do not have a clue so don’t speak on things you know
    nothing about,  

    BCFDTruckguy

  • FMBO

    Clack came he with the intention of cutting this Department by 25% the same as he did in Minn. This man doesn’t have a clue about the fire service and it shows every day! The Outreach Division should be gone, that is the job of HR. Outreach doesn’t do anything, they have the companies do their job all of the time. Cut Clack’s staff and Outreach and you might be able to open an additional company such as Truck 2.

  • CityFirefighter

    Where are the TRUE fact and figures for operation care?  Time for an Audit. These questions are random from the top of my head. 

    There were 2 orders prompting a reduction of fire apparatus responding to nursing homes
    and those facilities with 24 hour access to a health care provider for medic standbys prior to the arrival of a city medic unit.  (These occurred well over a year ago)

    Where are the individual case numbers showing a direct reduction in responses to an address or particular patient?  Where are the case numbers showing patients that were referred to effective social service programs or health care referrals that resulted in a reduction of services this FY or the past FY?

    This program has been running for over three years with an EMS captain position, and funding to some nurses in the health department that contribute part-time efforts to this fire department endeavor.  

    Where are the stats and figures showing results from the Fire and Health department for these individuals? 

    Questioning the new division, there is a smoke alarm captain assigned to FIB who from what I see only tracts smoke alarms and that job is a shuffling paperwork that suppression units have completed and reported by e-mail, his hob entitles sending it to someone else to keep a running total.  Where’s the efficiency in that?  A simple weekly excel spreadsheet from each battalion office is more efficient and cost effective by about $85K for a captains
    position in this bureau not needed.

    A paramedic to work with Hopkins program (Hopkins has an agenda all their own, where they coordinate their own activities and staffing) http://www.hopkinscares.org/.   

    There is the former line gang employee that Chief Clack gave a captains uniform.  I ask with someone holding a rank 4 levels above a position he formerly worked with no former
    supervisory duties or assignments, you can only imagine what he does efficiently with your tax dollars.

    Suppression units can and have been attending community meetings.  It does not take a new bureau to plan out/ or coordinate the activities of suppression units to respond to
    community events and or a smoke alarm program when there is several levels of operational command staff already in place that coordinate related activities. 

    Time to redirect funds back to communities through suppression-unit preservation and staffing.

  • Haligans

    MC must stand for “Master Cartwrong” lol

  • Kim Trueheart

    Nothing like a good enema – oops, I mean — AUDIT needed to fix this mess.  Chief Clack needs to tell the residents of the communities slated to lose 3 companies who will be responding not only to their 911 calls, but their non-emergency calls for in-home assistance, like smoke detectors, CO2 detectors, cat’s up a tree, etc.  Maybe the FECO will come to the rescue???

  • Jg11

    I would like to see a list of these 526 events attended. If they really did attend that many, which i highly doubt it, that tells me someone is also making a ton of overtime to do this.

  • http://twitter.com/dbetzel Dennis Betzel

    I must admit that I find one phrase out of this entire article most abhorrent: “BOTH BODIES RUBBER STAMP SUCH REQUESTS.”

    • baltimorebrew

      From B Brew: For proof of this information, look no further that the 2013 budget passed last week by the City Council.

      The Council just approved a $2.299 billion operating budget without a SINGLE change among thousands of budget items. The 5-member Board of Estimates, meanwhile, is controlled by the mayor by virtue of her vote and the votes of her two appointees.

      The Brew has written extensively about Extra Work Orders (EWOs) and the transfer of funds between and among agencies and programs by the Board of Estimates, typically passed as “routine agenda items” without discussion or comment.

  • CityFirefighter

    The only consistent to made up divisions and specialized
    programs within the city fire department- There will always be another deputy
    or assistant chief that will come along thinking they can reinvent the wheel
    with funds that were formerly dedicated to Emergency Responder Staffing
    dedicated to protect the people.

    Want a specialized program outside community based fire and
    EMS protection?  Then write a grant to
    secure fund for your pet project!  Stop
    stealing from the people of Baltimore to promote yourself or your agenda.

  • Squeaky Wheel

    If you really want to find out what that “smoke detector tracking captain does” have hs email and phone log audited. I am sure you will find more than enough unanswered requests for life safety/fire prevention education. In reference to the smoke detector tracking thouse requests go through 311, just run a log search and you will get your numbers.

  • feduptruckman

    And let’s not forget, that NOW they want to try to order us to go into public schools and read to the kids! I guess they are not aware that as a civilian you cannot simply go into a school (even as a parent) and just volunteer to work with students. You have to have a background check done before you can do any work with a school. Maybe if they did a more thurough background check of the people they hire (people with felonies and such that get hired anyway) then they might be able to get away with it, but given the fact that there has been people in the department already fired for sex crimes, do you really want these people just going into the schools and inter-acting with YOUR kids?? Just a thought. I know also that I’m betting that HALF the 3rd graders can read better than some of the FireFighters!!

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