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Baltimore City leaders say they need up to $39 million to fight fires amid working truck shortage

There was a two alarm fire along the 400 block of South Monroe Street in the Carrollton Ridge neighborhood in Baltimore this week.
Baltimore Firefighters IAFF Local 734
There was a two alarm fire along the 400 block of South Monroe Street in the Carrollton Ridge neighborhood in Baltimore in December 2022.

The Baltimore City Fire Department is proposing three different options to recoup its dwindling vehicle fleet of fire trucks but the scenarios as suggested to city leaders, may force the city council to make some hard decisions next budget cycle.

The fire department told city lawmakers last month that it is operating with 30% fewer fire engines than it needs to properly cover Baltimore City and keep residents safe when they call 911.

“We have a total of 17 fire companies that are permanently staffed, we're down five,” Joshua Fannon, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association, told the city council’s Public Safety and Government Operations Committee. “This is not because we don't have the staffing for it, it’s because we don't have the physical apparatus for it. And that is an unacceptable situation and puts a lot of our members at risk.”

The department wants to avoid tragedies like the South Sticker Street fire last year, which killed three firefighters. The incident ultimately lead to the resignation of Fire Chief Niles Ford last month.

At the request of City Councilmember Zeke Cohen, who represents District 1 in southeast Baltimore, the fire department filed a report on what it would take to get back to a healthy fleet.

The brass tacks of the report is that the current budget is $24 million. There’s three options for the city: stay at the same funding level and the fleet will dwindle, add $7.5 million a year for moderate growth and a perfectly healthy fleet in 10 years or add $15 million a year and fix the fleet in 5 years.

One of the main issues is aging vehicles, which leads to more maintenance and time off duty.

Industry standards suggest that ambulances serve a lifespan of six years, engines 10 years and ladder trucks 15 years, according to the report obtained by WYPR.

The fire department wants to keep its vehicles at a target range of half their life span – three, five and seven and a half years respectively.

The current age of the fleet far exceeds those targets. Ambulances are an average of 6.3-years-old, engines are 8.5 years of age and ladders 9.1 years.

If the city continues with its current budget of $24 million a year, it will end up losing six vehicles a year, according to the report.

The current plan replaces two ladder trucks, four engines and eight ambulances annually, but the replacements will not keep up with the need.

The fire department says it can keep going with this plan, but it will be dangerous for firefighters and for the city. Additionally, the average age of vehicles would continue to increase.

“The reality is that the $24 million budget that we started this program back in 2014 remains $24 million as of today,” said Baltimore General Services Director Berke Attila. “Anybody who can do a simple math would understand the inflationary changes that cost us in a way that we had to reduce the number of assets that each year we're producing under the master lease.”

One alternative outlined in the report is increasing the fire department's budget by $7.5 million each year. Those funds would allow for more vehicle buys and bring a surplus of seven vehicles per year.

It would also reduce the average vehicle age down to the target age in 10 years.

The final scenario would increase funding by $15 million each year and bring in a surplus of 14 new vehicles.

“This replacement schedule would greatly increase asset replacement,” officials for the fire department wrote in the report.

The plan would bring the average age of vehicles to the target age in about five years.

While the fire department is focusing on its fleet as a major concern, Cohen, the city council member, says there are other issues plaguing the department.

“I do not believe If we are currently adequately set up to be able to address what are some very real challenges,” he told WYPR. “Specifically, I think that having three rotating fire chiefs is a recipe for disaster. I hope that we are quickly filling that position getting a full time chief.”

The interim fire officials are heading the department after the fire chief’s resignation.

Staffing issues are also hurting the department and keeping vehicles from staying on the streets.

Attila, the general services director, said the city is down about 40 mechanics out of 135 positions.

He noted that the city is having trouble hiring the workers it needs because of the labor market. Baltimore is competing with companies like FedEx and Amazon for talent.

Scott is the Health Reporter for WYPR. @smaucionewypr
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