Fires will probably kill fewer people in Baltimore this year than in any other year since 1938, and fire officials see the relatively low death toll as hopeful evidence that a smoke-detector program begun in 1982 is beginning to prove its worth.
"That has been the big factor," said Capt. Patrick P. Flynn, a Fire Department spokesman. "Smoke detectors help to alert people and get them out of the house. Without the detectors, we tend to get a lot more multiple deaths."
With four days remaining in 1990, 28 people have died in fires in Baltimore. That is the fewest since 1938 -- the first year that the department began keeping track of fire deaths in the city -- when 24 people were killed. The record high came in 1966, when 84 people died in fires.
A smoke-detector program modeled after Baltimore's and begun 1989 is also credited with helping to decrease fire deaths across Maryland in 1989 to 84 -- the lowest in the state's history.
"That's not just coincidence," said Deputy Fire Chief Bob Thomas of the state fire marshal's office.
The Baltimore smoke-detector program -- in which the city Fire Department makes smoke detectors available through neighborhood firehouses for $6 -- was begun in 1982 after 17 people died in two separate fires in the space of three days. Both fires occurred while residents were sleeping, and neither house had smoke detectors.
In the eight years since, Captain Flynn said, the Fire Department has sold 140,000 smoke detectors. Private contributions enabled the department to give away another 25,000 to families that could not afford them, the captain said.
Deputy Fire Chief Thomas said a state program similar to Baltimore's provides free detectors to those who are unable to purchase them in St. Mary's, Calvert and Charles counties and on the Lower Eastern Shore. More than 400 detectors have been given out and applications have been received for another 50, he said.
Other than Baltimore, no jurisdiction in the metropolitan area has a detector program.
"We rely heavily on an educational-type program," said Chief Duane Ludwig of the Gamber Fire Station in Carroll County.
Captain Flynn of Baltimore said that of those who died in city fires this year, 20 perished because of careless smoking, four in fires started by cooking or by heating equipment, two by children playing with matches, one by a natural gas explosion and another in a fire of undetermined origin.
Fire investigators said careless smoking was the cause of a fire yesterday in West Baltimore that claimed the life of 72-year-old Charles Conway. Investigators said the fire started at about 5 a.m. in a bed on the first floor of a row house in the 1400 block of North Fulton Avenue and spread up a stairway to a second floor apartment where Mr. Conway lived.
Mr. Conway was awakened by a first-floor resident and made his way down the stairs, but then he returned to his apartment to retrieve an unspecified item, fire officials said. They said he became trapped in the fire and was found wrapped in a blanket on a sofa where he had sought protection.
Baltimore's smoke-detector program was begun by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer in 1982. That year began with 20 people dying in fires in 17 days. Then in May, 17 people died within 72 hours -- 10 in a fire on Tivoly Avenue caused by a kerosene lantern and seven in a fire on Park Heights Avenue caused by careless smoking.
The state program also began in the wake of a tragedy, when four people died in a fire in Lexington Park in 1988 in a house without smoke detectors.
How to get a smoke detector
Baltimore residents who want to buy smoke detectors may order them through their local fire station. The price is $6. Those who can't afford the price can apply to the Fire Department for a free one provided through private contributions.
The state fire marshal runs a program patterned after Baltimore'in St. Mary's, Calvert and Charles counties and on the Lower Eastern Shore. The detectors can be ordered through local firehouses for $6, and those who can't afford them can apply for a free one from the state through local fire stations.