Baltimore City Council members advanced Mayor Brandon Scott’s nomination for fire chief Wednesday in an expeditious hearing that touched on staffing shortages, equipment delays and strained emergency responses that have strapped the department in recent years.

In a hearing lasting under an hour, the council’s seven-member Rules and Legislative Oversight committee unanimously approved acting Fire Chief James Wallace’s nomination with one member absent. Wallace still requires approval from the full 15-member council, which is expected to take confirmation votes for him and the acting police commissioner at its Oct. 2 meeting.

A 33-year veteran of the department, Wallace was tapped as the city’s next fire chief after more than three years heading the Office of Emergency Management, a division within the fire department charged with leading the city’s response to everything from hazardous weather to the pandemic.

The confirmation hearing for Wallace was part of an unusual night for Baltimore City Council, in which it vetted two top public safety officials – the fire chief nominee and acting Police Chief Richard Worley, who also drew unanimous approval in a lengthier hearing. Both men are veterans of their departments who have taken the reins in the wake of sudden departures by their predecessors.

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Councilmembers praised Wallace’s tenure in the department and trained much of their questioning on his plans to address the department’s myriad equipment and staffing problems.

Exacerbated by the pandemic, equipment shortages have hamstrung the department – with order times for many much-needed vehicles tripling – while a staffing crunch and overwhelming call volumes have contributed to long 911 wait times. In a hearing the day before Wallace’s confirmation vote, the city’s 911 call center director told the council that the department hasn’t been meeting its requirement to pick up emergency calls within 15 seconds for much of this summer.

Wallace and his staff laid out steps the department is taking to shore up many of these areas Thursday, among them efforts to triage the high volume of nonurgent calls to prioritize resources toward the most city’s urgent needs. Officials said they are exploring partnering with a ride-share company as one way of relieving stress on ambulance and emergency medical teams for lower-priority calls.

Staffing shortages, too, have strained the department, with officials alluding to a possible looming exodus of veteran staff in their hearing earlier in the week. Wallace said his department is looking at ways to expedite the time it takes for recruits to get into fire academies and noted imminent plans to roll out hiring and retention bonuses.

Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer praised Wallace’s years of service in the department, thanking him in particular for his presence over the years on the scenes of emergencies in his district. “You’ve always been there from the beginning and stayed there until the very end,” the Northwest Baltimore councilman said. “And that’s very honorable.”

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On top of service challenges, Wallace’s appointment comes in the wake of upended leadership at the fire department. In December, former Fire Chief Niles Ford resigned following the release of a damning internal investigation into the 2022 Stricker Street vacant home fire that killed three firefighters.

But amid turnover Wallace has had the backing of Baltimore’s local fire unions. Baltimore Fire Officers Association President Joshua Fannon addressed the council Thursday night, commending Wallace for proactively engaging the unions and hearing out their priorities. Wallace has promised an open-door policy to the unions and kept his word since his nomination, Fannon said. “I’m hopeful that this decision is not going to be too difficult” for the council, he added.

Scott tapped Wallace to be the next fire chief in July after months without long-term leadership in the department following the Stricker Street report. Wallace began his career in the department as a paramedic and worked his way up to become a fire lieutenant. In addition to leading the Office of Emergency Management, he has held various leadership positions within the department over the years, including deputy fire chief.

Though few community members who spoke at Worley’s confirmation remained to testify at Wallace’s, one dissenter raised concerns about charges Wallace faced in his 20s for possession of more than 50 “pipe bombs” and other explosives. While the 1992 charges, surfaced by The Baltimore Sun following Wallace’s appointment this summer, have since been expunged, the resident, who didn’t provide his name, questioned whether someone with that history should be confirmed for such a high leadership position.

“Are there not better men and women that have served in our fire department that can serve our city better? Are there not folks that have residency in the city that have paid the price of living in the city?” he asked. City charter requires department heads to live in Baltimore. Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright said Wallace lives in Pennsylvania but plans to “immediately” relocate to Baltimore if confirmed for the job.

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Scott, meanwhile, defended his fire chief selection at a news conference Wednesday, arguing that since Baltimore has opted to bar employers from asking job candidates about criminal records – a practice known as “banning the box” – the past charges against Wallace shouldn’t even merit discussion.

“If we’re going to say that we’re going to be a place of second chances – and we’re going to pass these laws where you can’t talk about these things – we shouldn’t be talking about them,” the first-term Democrat said.

Wallace’s contract, released this week, would pay a salary of $218,000 for four years, or until the current mayor is no longer in office, whichever comes first.

Reporter Ben Conarck contributed to this story.

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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