Baltimore Fire Chief James Clack floated a plan Thursday to reduce the ranks by 25 percent and extend firefighters' workweeks by 14 hours, which he says could save the city $10 million annually.
Clack said that shifts for city firefighters, the lowest-paid in the state, would be extended from 42 hours a week to 56 hours, boosting their net pay 20 percent. While he said his goal for the next year is to negotiate the plan with union officials, he acknowledged that there was not "wide acceptance."
"They see it as going backward," Clack told Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at a budget briefing at City Hall. "We may end up at some midpoint. We'll spend this calendar year talking about the options and ideas on how to make [the plan] palatable and save money."
Union president Rick Hoffman said the plan wasn't just being resisted; he called it "out of the question."
"The Baltimore firefighters and Baltimore fire officers are not interested in working 56 hours," Hoffman said.
Disclosure of the proposed plan came as fire officials briefed Rawlings-Blake on the anticipated closure of three fire companies, part of an effort to close a $48 million shortfall in the city's $3 billion budget.
A fire company is made up of either a truck or an engine and the staff assigned to it, and officials said the closures come from stations that house at least two companies. For the past two years, the Fire Department has been closing three companies on a rotating basis.
"Rotating closures are a temporary solution, maybe for a year, or six months," Clack said. "This is not a temporary issue."
In addition to the closures, Clack's budget for the next fiscal year calls for the elimination of 66 vacant positions.
Clack pointed out that despite department changes, fire deaths were the lowest on record last year and that only one person has died in a fire this year. Moreover, firefighters respond to the scene of a fire within four minutes in 85 percent of calls, a number he believes can be improved upon with new technology that he hopes to implement.
He also stressed that no fire stations would be shuttered with the company closures.
But Hoffman, the union president, said morale is crumbling and Clack has failed to show leadership.
This month, the fire union in Anne Arundel County voted no confidence in Chief John Ray. Hoffman said such a move won't be necessary in Baltimore: "Chief Clack knows there's not a firefighter in the city who has any confidence in him. We don't need to vote on that," Hoffman said.
He said that firefighters are not receiving pay raises as their health care costs increase and that the Fire Department seems to be absorbing disproportionate cuts.
"It seems like we're to blame for everybody's budget woes," Hoffman said. "All we're asking for is to be treated fairly. We want a decent hourly wage, and to come to work, retire and live happily. Are we under siege? You better believe it."
Any plan to alter work hours and pay would need approval from the union or go to binding arbitration. Clack said the union has not made any counterproposals, but he said he remains optimistic.
Clack said a 56-hour workweek is common in "any big city west of the Appalachian Mountains or south of Washington, D.C." He said it is being proposed in the District of Columbia as well as Anne Arundel County and Philadelphia.
While Clack said pay would increase 20 percent, he acknowledged that the hourly rate would go down. Still, he said firefighters have told him that they want to earn more pay and his plan would accomplish that.
The reduction in the workforce would come over time through attrition, not layoffs, Clack told city officials.
"I'm trying to find them a way to get a raise and still manage the Fire Department," Clack said. "There just isn't money available unless we can figure out a way to make our budget stretch forward. The only way I can think of is less people and have them make more money."