Robert Downing Baron, 56, expert in maritime industry, fire safety

April 19, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Robert Downing Baron, an internationally known maritime cargo-handling and fire safety expert who was also a longtime volunteer firefighter, died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma Thursday at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. He was 56.

"His expertise ran the gamut of safety training for longshoremen in hazardous cargo handling, in safe equipment operation, in general industry safety standards, to participation in the work of national safety associations," said William F. Detweiler, regional director of the U.S. Maritime Alliance Ltd.

Mr. Baron was born and raised in Augusta, Maine, where he graduated from high school. He attended St. Mary's College of Maryland, which at the time was one of the few colleges in the nation offering courses in fire and safety.

While a college student, he helped establish the 3rd and 6th District Rescue Squad in Leonardtown.

After leaving college in 1966, he enlisted in the Air Force and served on Guam as a fire protection specialist. He later served as an instructor at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy and was assistant to the fire chief at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee Falls, Mass.

After being discharged with the rank of sergeant in 1970, he moved to Maryland, where he was a fire safety officer at Springfield State Hospital in Sykesville. He held a similar position with the Maryland Port Administration until being named director of industrial services for the Safety Council of Maryland.

In 1976, after the death of an older brother, he returned to Maine briefly, where he was vice president and assistant treasurer of the Charles E. Downing Co., an insurance business that had been established by his grandfather.

Returning to Baltimore in 1979, Mr. Baron went to work as director of safety and security for the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc.

He also developed and conducted safety courses for longshoremen in Baltimore and participated in the development of safety and health regulations for the marine cargo-handling industry.

Mr. Baron was a consultant to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, where he developed fire-protection standards for shipyards. He was also a member of the National Maritime Safety Association.

At the request of the Israeli Ports and Railways Authority, he traveled in 1994 to Israel to evaluate the fire-protection status of the ports of Haifa, Ashdod and Eilat.

He was a co-founder and president of the Mid-Chesapeake Marine Emergency Response Group, which assists in coordinating the response of federal, state, county and municipal agencies to marine incidents in the bay.

Larry Liberatore, who is director of OSHA's maritime safety program, described Mr. Baron as a "pillar of the safety community."

"He cared a great deal about the working man, yet he also knew how to work with management. He was respected at the table by both sides," he said.

His work had far-reaching effects, said Mr. Liberatore.

"He was able to get the various groups together to sit down and discuss possible port emergencies. It used to be dealing with oil spills, but now it's a different perspective. A lot of ports have picked up on that, and much of what they are doing is based on what was done in Baltimore in the late 1990s," he said.

"Bob Baron was a dedicated safety professional in the port industry," said Michael Compton, a member of the international safety panel of the International Cargo Handling Coordination Association, who lives in Epping, England. "He represented the best kind -- those who actually cared about longshoremen getting hurt. And he worked hard to prevent accidents taking place."

Mr. Baron, who was a co-founder of the ICHCA's international safety panel in 1991, also lectured nationally and internationally on maritime fire and safety issues.

"He authored, co-authored and served as a technical editor of many publications addressing the critical issues in the cargo-handling world," Mr. Compton said. "He recently completed a major technical training program for OSHA."

"He was a very soft-spoken guy who worried about the quality, productivity and expectations for the port," said Helen Delich Bentley, former U.S. congresswoman and U.S. maritime commissioner.

"Because of his efforts, Baltimore gained an excellent reputation for cargo handling. Also, because of his easygoing manner, everyone wanted to work and follow his recommendations," she said.

Mr. Baron, who was found to have non-Hodgkins lymphoma four years ago, retired last year.

A member of the Lutherville Volunteer Fire Co. for 33 years, Mr. Baron was awarded the company's Washington Bowie Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. He also was given a unit citation award for his role during the 1997 fatal tanker crash on Interstate 83.

In 1987, he received a Bronze Star from the Baltimore County Fire Department for his work in extricating injured passengers from the Amtrak train crash in Chase in 1987.

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