BALTIMORE (WJZ) — It’s some of the most demanding physical and technical work a fire department undertakes. Now Baltimore wants to strengthen its special operations units.

Alex DeMetrick reports the firefighters’ union worries that could weaken essential services.

When the call demands rescuing someone suddenly trapped in swift water or freeing a victim buried in a collapsed trench or a response by the dive team, it falls to the fire department’s special operations units. It takes training and stamina.

WJZ was briefed in the past on what it takes to dive.

“The body loses heat 25 percent faster in the water than it does in the surface. You’re breathing mechanical air; it’s dry air, so you get dehydrated much quicker. It takes a lot of wear and tear on the diver,” said Baltimore City Fire Chief Joseph Brocato.

But when an accident last year took the dive team out of service, Baltimore’s fire chief decided to place all special operations under one roof at Locust Point and beef up spending for new equipment and improved training.

“We’ll be able to respond to any type of emergency when it comes to specialized rescues,” said Baltimore City Fire Department Assistant Chief Jeffrey Segal.

“I think it’s money spent frivolously,” said fire union president Rick Hoffman.

Hoffman says tight money has already closed fire houses.

“We can hardly keep our essential services intact. We want to start this and spend a quarter million or a million dollars on this,” Hoffman said.

The union isn’t saying special operations aren’t needed. They are needed, but only represent a small fraction of the calls the department routinely responds to. As for increasing special ops, they feel this isn’t the time to do so.

But the department says changing special operations will make a critical difference.

“It’s going to make us able to get there within minutes with specialized rescue personnel,” Segal said.

And whether it’s a wrong turn into the harbor or a construction accident, time can make all the difference in an outcome.

The department says there is no firm dollar figure yet for special operations improvements, although some of it will be funded with federal Homeland Security money.

Alex DeMetrick


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