In recent years, the city’s firefighters and medics have grown accustomed to responding to Baltimore’s many 911 calls with skeleton crews.
But this summer, weekends have been even more fraught than usual. That tension culminated on Saturday, when nearly a third of the Baltimore City Fire Department’s engine and truck companies were out of service due to shortages of personnel, according to Josh Fannon, president of IAFF Local 964, the fire officers’ union.
Fannon, a department veteran, said last weekend was the worst Saturday daytime staffing shortage he has seen. Massive vacancy rates on the emergency medical services side means firefighters and medics are already working more overtime hours than they’d like, he said, which has made it harder to find people willing to work extra shifts on the summer weekends. But the available pool of people was even smaller on Saturday, when the department held a competitive test used to rank who is next in line to become a lieutenant.
A department-wide broadcast recorded by WJZ staff and posted to Twitter quantified the sheer number of units that were out of service due to staff shortages: 12 out of 31 fire engines and 12 out of 28 emergency medical transport units.
Matt Coster — president of IAFF Local 734, the firefighters’ union — said that an EMS vacancy rate of 30% means more firefighters are being asked to backfill on medical units.
“You’re staffing the department with overtime on a daily basis and members are getting burned out,” he said. “They’d rather not work the weekends if they don’t have to.”
That burnout stems from an increasingly heavy workload with fewer people. Coster said medics report to duty in the morning and don’t see the firehouse until the end of the day when they’re coming back from their shift.
One city medic, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak on the record, said that the weekend staffing crunch was not an outlier but represented a new normal.
“That 0700 department broadcast is not an aberration,” the medic said. “That’s every weekend now.”
Kevin Cartwright, a veteran Baltimore firefighter who recently rejoined the department as public information officer, conceded that the men and women of BCFD were operating under “challenging circumstances,” but said he was optimistic that a soon-to-be graduating class of recruits would help ease some of the staff shortages.
“As we are monitoring our apparatus fleet daily, monitoring our personnel staffing daily, we are always prepared to employ a contingency plan so to speak, to assure that every 911 call that comes in, we’re able to respond to,” Cartwright said.
But longtime members are increasingly concerned that the department is suffering under too heavy of a strain. Compounding its personnel shortages, the department has been dealing with a depleted vehicle fleet, with various units out of service, sometimes for weeks at a time. Fire engines are used to respond to and extinguish fires. Ladder trucks are used to enact search and rescue or utilize other heavy tools. The city has been short on both.
Fannon said he has seen “brownouts,” shorthand for rolling closures of fire companies, in the past, notably after the financial crisis of 2007.
“But as soon as it was possible, that was rectified,” he said. “As soon as they had the money, we also had the personnel. Now we don’t have the personnel.”
The longtime union president said it was hard to say which problem facing the department was more urgent: the condition of the fleet or the personnel shortages.
“I would put them on equal footing,” he said. “It’s two perfect storms colliding into a superstorm, is what it is.”
Some point to the department’s hiring practices as a culprit
City Councilman Mark Conway, the chairman of the public safety committee, has been closely following the fire department’s challenges, calling a hearing on the fleet problems late last year. But he said he had not realized the extent of the problems staffing firehouses on the weekends.
“The degree of shortages, this is the first that I’ve heard of it, and that is shocking,” Conway said. “That’s really worrisome.”
Conway said there are a number of issues affecting the department’s ability to staff fire companies and EMS units, but one he has been focused on is to kick-start the department’s hiring efforts, which ground to a halt during the pandemic. He said the city has finally pushed through a list of potential candidates that dates back to pre-pandemic times, and has put out a new list, which they’ve begun hiring from.
“We need a rapid succession of hiring through these lists until we get to a point that we’re sufficiently filling the holes that we have in the department,” he said.
Cartwright, the department spokesperson, said there is an active recruitment drive that will end on Sunday.
“Just around a week ago, we had roughly 800-plus applicants and we actually have existing recruit classes at our fire academy who will be graduating in the very near future,” he said. “They will be hitting the streets as EMT/firefighters.”
Fannon said he agreed with Conway that the hiring process needed revision, and added that simply increasing the number of recruits would only help so much. More than ever before, Fannon said, veteran firefighters and medics are opting not to wait for their pensions to kick in and choosing to leave the department instead, usually for positions in neighboring counties that have lesser workloads and better pay and benefits.
“They’re going to the best deal,” Fannon said. “And that’s not Baltimore City.”