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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.

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

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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