City to get federal help in fire probes ATF pact stems from dispute after Clipper Mill blaze

Police join in agreement

Memo specifies when and how aid is to be requested

March 15, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Scott Higham contributed to this article.

Federal authorities will help Baltimore fire investigators probe major city fires under a new agreement with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the wake of a public tiff between the agencies after the Clipper Mill blaze in September.

The five-page memorandum of understanding signed this week by the head of the local ATF office, the police commissioner and the fire chief establishes an Arson Response Team and makes it easier for commanders on the scene to ask for federal help.

The ATF "does have resources that are available for local use," said Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. "What this agreement does is set up a framework of notifying [federal agents] and allowing them to come in to give us assistance."

Chief Williams acknowledged that the memorandum stems from the fracas over investigation of the nine-alarm Clipper Mill blaze, in which ATF agents invited by a city investigator were abruptly sent packing by fire commanders who said their help was not needed.

That prompted an angry response from the local ATF office, which had assembled the 30-member federal team that was flown in from at least four states at a cost of $20,000.

The Fire Department's investigation ended in January. The police said their Fire Department counterparts were not cooperating, and the state's attorney disagreed with fire investigators who blamed teen-agers for setting the fire.

The family of Eric D. Schaefer, a firefighter killed at Clipper Mill, and the lead fire investigator, who called upon the federal authorities, said the ATF could have helped clear up the questions remaining from the closed investigation.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke stepped into the fray in January, ordering public safety agencies to create a "team collaborative approach" and warning that anyone who stood in the way would be fired.

ATF Special Agent M. Stewart Allen, who is in charge of the agency's Maryland and Delaware field offices, would not say how much of the new agreement was in response to the Clipper Mill fire.

"All I will say is that whole thing was unfortunate," said Mr. Allen, who assumed his post in January, four months after the blaze. "When I came here, we all agreed we should look to the future. This will give us more expertise and manpower on big fires. We're really looking forward to it."

Mr. Allen said that many fire departments in big cities have similar agreements with the ATF. "A lot of times, when there is a big fire, it's good to have something to fall back on," he said. "This is going to be beneficial for each department and, more important, to the city of Baltimore."

The memorandum outlines seven situations and in which of them federal officials may be called in. Fire investigators may ask for ATF help with fires that go to more than two alarms. The ATF is to be notified of all fires that go to four alarms or more.

In fatal fires, investigators may call in the ATF "at their discretion if deemed necessary to further the investigation," the memo says. But the ATF "will be notified of fatalities if [the fire] is determined to be arson."

The National Response Team, which was called for the Clipper Mill fire, then disbanded, may be activated by a police major or by the fire officials in charge of field operations. At Clipper Mill, there was disagreement over who had authority to ask for federal help.

The memo specifies that all reports are to be shared among the police, the Fire Department and the ATF and that ATF training facilities, bomb-detecting dogs and other specialized equipment be made available to local investigators.

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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