City sets new low with 19 fire fatalities in 1999

Chief Williams credits range of safety programs

January 06, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Keeping with a nationwide trend, Baltimore ended 1999 with the fewest annual fire fatalities since the Fire Department began keeping records in 1938, but the city recorded more deaths than similar-sized municipalities.

Mayor Martin O'Malley will announce this morning that Baltimore recorded 19 fire-related deaths in 1999, three fewer than the previous record low of 22 deaths in 1996.

Fire Department Chief Herman Williams Jr. said this year's record low stemmed from the successful implementation of the city's free smoke detector program, two mild winters and fire prevention and safety programs.

"We have all sorts of safety and fire programs that save lives," Williams said. "Even though we still have quite a few fires."

Though Baltimore's population has plummeted from more than 900,000 residents in the mid-1960s to about 640,000, the city continues to record about the same number of house fires, Williams said.

The Fire Department responded to 60,989 calls, and its Investigation Division handled 1,236 major building or house fires in 1999, said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a department spokesman.

"We literally save dozens of people a year," said Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Local 964, the city firefighters union. "[But] I attribute this year's decline in fire deaths to education and smoke detectors."

Statewide, 85 deaths were reported, reversing a 10-year decline when fire-related deaths fell by 40 percent. There were 78 deaths in 1998, compared with 129 deaths in 1988. The state had its record-low in 1996 with 62 deaths.

Allen R. Gosnell, spokesman for the state fire marshal, said state officials are concerned by last year's increase, but do not expect it to continue.

Despite last year's record low, Baltimore reported more fire deaths than Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland and Washington, cities with similar populations.

Williams said it is unfair to compare Baltimore with other cities because the city has the nation's second-oldest housing stock, and many city blocks are lined with rowhouses.

"Most fires occur in older sections of the city, and when you have a fire, they burn faster and it's more of a life hazard," Williams said. "In Cleveland and other cities, you have a lot of detached houses."

The majority of the city's fires and fire-related fatalities occur in depressed neighborhoods where some homes are subdivided into several apartments, making deaths more likely, Williams said.

"We still have a lot of homes with two, three, four, five families in them," Williams said.

Nationwide, 1999 fire death statistics have not been compiled, but 4,035 deaths were reported in 1998, the lowest U.S. fire death toll in 20 years, according to the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Mass.

Susan McKelvey, an NFPA spokeswoman, said the steady decrease in deaths is directly related to an increase in homes with smoke detectors.

An estimated 93 percent of U.S. homes have at least one smoke alarm today, compared with 50 percent in 1980 when about 12,000 fire-related deaths were reported nationwide.

In Baltimore, firefighters have installed about 60,000 smoke alarms since their smoke detector program began in 1994. The program, sponsored by the city, WMAR-TV (Channel 2) and local businesses, gives residents free smoke detectors, which firefighters install.

Williams said the program has reduced fire deaths by 50 percent since the early 1990s. Between 1976 and 1988, Baltimore had an average of 53 fire deaths annually. In 1984, 88 people died, the record high.

Williams plans to build on recent successes by expanding the program and offering more fire prevention and safety programs without busting the department's yearly $102 million budget.

"I am not satisfied with these 19 deaths," Williams said. "Hopefully, we can cut the deaths to zero."

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