In a city stacked with vacant rowhouses that are fire hazards waiting to erupt, the Baltimore City Fire Department’s vehicle fleet isn’t exactly ready for the challenge.

That was the message that the city’s two firefighter union presidents sent to City Council members during a public safety committee hearing on Wednesday to discuss the department’s shortage of firefighting vehicles and mechanics to keep the fleet up and running.

The challenges date back to 2009 following the Great Recession, when the city pulled back on its fleet purchases due to financial concerns. Purchase orders picked back up in 2015, fire officials said, but it has become increasingly difficult to address the gaps in the fleet with rising inflation pushing the cost of vehicles higher and supply chain issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic leading to delays in receiving them.

Josh Fannon, president of the union representing fire officers, said that the Fire Department was operating with only 12 of 17 fully staffed ladder trucks, which are used to search for trapped victims and remove them to safety.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

That is down five trucks from where the Fire Department is supposed to be staffed, which Fannon attributed to a lack of vehicles, not a lack of staff or funding.

“This is an unacceptable situation,” Fannon said. “It puts our members at risk. It puts our community at risk that we serve.”

Department leadership, which was just upended following a scathing report on a fatal fire on South Stricker Street in January that took the lives of three fighters, contended that they are doing everything they can to address the issues. But faced with questioning from City Council Member Zeke Cohen on coming up with a detailed plan to replace and maintain the vehicle fleet, acting fire chiefs said they needed a week to develop one.

Citing the Stricker Street report as the “elephant in the room,” Cohen said he is “deeply concerned with the overall functioning of the department at this point.”

“We just read a report that was extensive and that showed pattern and practices of what I would say is shoddy management and shoddy leadership,” Cohen said as questioning opened during the hearing. “Folks lost their lives as a result. I think that from the top down, we need to make sure that we are focused on, first, procurement, making sure we have the equipment that we need, and second, just clear management and chains of command so that we don’t have confusion.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Acting interim Chief Charles Svehla, one member of a committee of acting interim chiefs, said the group is meeting daily to address issues in the department. That includes developing a plan to modernize the vehicle fleet, along with dealing with other issues, such as staffing shortages and addressing the issues outlined in the Stricker Street report.

“We could have a discussion about the report at a later date, and we understand what was in that report,” Svehla said. “But right now we are working diligently. ... to create what is needed to move the department forward in the direction that we need it to go into.”

With the shortage of ladder trucks, Svehla said the department relies on neighboring jurisdictions if there are multiple calls and fires in the city that leads to a shortage of units in service. Their backup plan, he added, is to reduce the number of fire engines sent to other fires to free up more vehicles.

The goals for the Fire Department’s fleet state that fire engines should be replaced every 10 years and EMS transport units should be replaced every three years. But those purchases lagged starting in 2009.

Between 2009 and 2014, the Fire Department purchased eight fire engines, four trucks and 24 EMS transport units, officials said. To properly maintain their fleet would have required 24 engines, 12 trucks and 48 EMS transport units during that time.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Starting in 2015, the Fire Department said it reinvested in those purchases, buying 37 engines, 15 trucks and 73 EMS transport units. But due to delays, it has received only 30 engines, 10 trucks and 47 EMS transport units in that same time frame.

In the first half of 2023, Fire Department chiefs said they anticipate receiving three fire engine and three ladder trucks. When those arrive, the department will have its youngest first-line fleet since the 1930s, the chiefs added. It is the reserve vehicles, the second line, that date back decades, with some as old as 2003, 2004, and 2005 models.

“That’s most of my life,” said Council member Mark Conway, head of the public safety committee. “That’s more than half of my life.”

Second-line vehicles are used when first-line vehicles break down and need repairs, but the age of the reserve fleets means those vehicles are more likely to break down, too, and can take longer to repair, creating a cycle of wear and tear that snowballs.

After a line of questioning from City Council member Odette Ramos on vehicle maintenance, Berke Attila, director of the Department of General Services, revealed that the city is short about 40 out of 135 mechanics. Attila said the city is competing with private companies like BGE and Amazon for mechanics who can work on vehicles.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

That statistic jumped out to City Council members and fire union presidents who hadn’t known the extent of the shortage.

“It’s pretty disturbing that that’s what’s going on,” Ramos said of the mechanic shortage. She suggested that the city partner with vocational schools like Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, in her district, to create a pipeline for auto mechanics.

Baltimore City has made some progress in its fleet maintenance since 2015, when it instituted a master lease program instead of buying vehicles outright, Attila said. Before then, he said, the city was spending about $6 million per year on vehicles.

It now spends about $24 million a year, but that number hasn’t been adjusted since the program launched, which Atilla said has meant purchasing fewer vehicles than they used to due to inflationary pressures. Since the inception of the master lease program, about 28% of the total dollars spent has gone to Fire Department vehicles, Atilla added. He suggested spreading purchases over multiple years to cut down on lead times.

“It’s not easy,” Atilla told City Council members. “It requires a lot of financial gymnastics, but I think there is a way out if we collaborate.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Compounding the issue is the cost of Fire Department vehicles. Unlike police SUVs, which cost about $40,000, Fire Department vehicle prices range in the six figures. Medic units cost about $300,000, fire engines cost $850,000 and ladder trucks cost about $1.5 million, fire officials said.

Svehla, the acting chief, bristled toward the end of the meeting after questioning from Council member Antionio Glover, who urged the Fire Department to be transparent about issues he had heard of in his district, such as delayed response times to shootings and fire trucks being out for minor issues, such as a hose needing to be replaced.

“We have no problem being transparent with anybody. Again, we have nothing to hide,” Svehla said. “We have issues that we’re dealing with right now. … We’re emergency service people and we’ve been doing this for a long time, and we will deal with those issues. But again, it’s been four days since we’ve been put into these positions, and we’re trying to get what we need to get done as quickly as we can and to take immediate action on what we need to take immediate action on.”

bconarck@thebaltimorebanner.com

Ben Conarck is a criminal justice reporter for The Baltimore Banner. Previously, he covered healthcare and investigations for the Miami Herald and criminal justice for the Florida Times-Union.

More From The Banner