Baltimore’s Chief Clack responds to questions about PIO comments on fire company closings. Read his email.

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Watching and reading a WJZ-TV story and reading an article in The Baltimore Sun about the Baltimore City Fire Department’s budget woes and the radio ad from the unions, I was left with some questions. It had to do with what the TV station reported were comments (but not direct quotes) from the department’s spokesman Chief Kevin Cartwright. I had originally believed I had read a similar comment in The Baltimore Sun story, but I was in error. Still, based on the TV station’s reporting, I wanted some clarification on whether the department believed Truck 2 was ever needed.

In less than one-hour and 45-minutes I received a detailed response to questions I had sent to Chief Cartwright and Fire Chief James Clack. Here is Chief Clack’s email in its entirity:

David: Chief Cartwright asked me if I would like to respond to a couple of questions you posed to him about the pending closure of Truck 2 in downtown Baltimore. I hope you will indulge me to answer for him since your questions give me an opportunity to tell a different side of the story here in Baltimore.

The questions you asked Kevin are:

Both WJZ-TV last night and The Baltimore Sun today report that closing Truck 2 won’t cause any risk and attribute that statement to you. This leaves me with some questions.

1. If that is in fact true, why wasn’t this identified earlier as a cost cutting measure rather than funding an entire company that doesn’t mitigate risk?

2. If stimulus money or any other money were to suddenly become available to fund the department to its previous level, how could the department justify or even consider reopening Truck 2 if closing it doesn’t cause risk? Couldn’t those who hold the purse strings use those words to try and deny a reopening?

First, a short defense is offered for my Public Information Officer: I cannot find a story in the Baltimore Sun where Kevin Cartwright said that “closing Truck 2 won’t cause any risk”. If the newspaper did publish a story containing this quote, please send it to me directly. I try to read the Baltimore Sun every day, but I may have missed it. In the television story aired on WJZ-TV, those words were not a quote from Kevin, but appear as part of a summary statement made by the reporter at the end of her story.

Regardless of what was said or not said by Chief Cartwright to a reporter, the bottom line is that closing any fire company will have an effect on our overall average response time in the city. If we go from 19 truck companies to 18 truck companies in the city, there will come a time where Truck 2 would have arrived at a call before one of the two trucks that we send to every structure fire. Thankfully, the number of structure fires we have downtown nowadays is very small indeed. That was a significant factor we took into consideration as we made some tough choices to meet our budget.

I wish to be crystal clear about my position and the position of the Baltimore City Fire Department: We would certainly prefer not to close any companies, but the in the words of Mr. Warren Buffett, (one of the wealthiest men on the planet) the economy “has fallen off a cliff”. Economists are at a loss to figure out where the economy is headed in the future. One the revenue side, the city is coming up short in almost all categories of revenue when compared to the 2009 budget. This is a significant part of the “environmental scan” we are looking at as I write to you today. As Fire Chief, my job is to be a realist during these tough times and come up with the best possible plan to continue to provide the outstanding level of service our residents have come to expect from the Baltimore City Fire Department.

In answer to your second question, if money becomes available to put companies back in service we will again go through a detailed analysis of what is going on at that point with our calls for service. It is essentially the same process we went through to cut the budget, but in “reverse”. Once we have the data, we will then match the increased resources available with the area of most need by our residents. We will certainly engage the unions in that discussion and come up with the best possible use for the new money.

All is not gloom and doom here in “Charm City”. I am proud to say that this city enjoys one of the best levels of fire protection of any city in the United States. Some of my evidence includes:

We have four firefighters on every fire company, where many cities have resorted to cutting unit staffing to three or even two firefighters per company.

Every firefighter working for the BCFD has two sets of turn-out gear thanks to a Fire Act Grant.

As of March 1, 2009, we were meeting all the NFPA 1710 response standards to our structure fires.

No firefighters in Baltimore are being laid off and no fire stations are closing.

We have almost 600 firefighters who are ALS licensed EMS providers and every suppression company carries ALS equipment. Also getting lost in this discussion is the fact that we are adding two new medic units in July to the 22 we already have on the street every day.

I will challenge anyone to find more than a handful of large cities in this country that can match our performance and outstanding level of service. I am very proud to be the Fire Chief here in Baltimore City and feel blessed every day to lead a great group of men and women who put their lives on the line every day in service to others.

James S. Clack
Fire Chief
Baltimore City Fire Department