Fire chiefs plan summit to address deadly blazes

Investigators can't explain sudden rise in fatalities

February 21, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

Alarmed by the number of recent fatal fires, state officials have summoned Maryland's fire chiefs to a summit March 3 in College Park.

"We are approaching fire death totals not seen since the late 1970s and early 1980s," Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor said. "We need to develop strategies to reduce those numbers."

In addition to career fire chiefs, the summit is intended to include volunteer fire chiefs and a consortium of fire and burn safety advocates.

This year, 26 people in Maryland have been killed in fires, including those occurring in motor vehicle accidents. Last year, 71 people died, Taylor said.

The increase is particularly noticeable in Baltimore City. At this time a year ago, four people had died in fires. Yesterday, the total for this year in Baltimore stood at 13.

In the city, poverty has apparently been a factor in many house fires in recent years. Many people whose electricity has been cut off for nonpayment of bills improvise by stretching extension cords from neighbors' houses or by using candles.

Overall, though, "there is no common theme, it's just a variety of situations and circumstances," said city Fire Department spokesman James Gardner.

Statewide, a common feature in fatal house fires is that they occur at night.

"Over 80 percent of fatalities are on residential properties: single-family houses, mobile homes, apartment buildings. People are at their most vulnerable when they are sleeping," explained Taylor.

The state fire marshal's office investigates fires in 19 of Maryland's 24 local jurisdictions. It has been collecting fire fatality data since 1975, when an all-time high of 184 was recorded.

The next year, though, the number of fire deaths fell to 142. Except for one major spike, the totals have been declining. An all-time low of 62 fire deaths was recorded in 1996.

Stricter preventive laws have contributed to the downward trend, Taylor said. He noted a 1992 law that required sprinklers in all new townhouses. Prince George's and Montgomery counties also require sprinklers in all new single-family homes.

Most of the recent fatal fires have occurred in houses without working smoke detectors. Otherwise, investigators are at a loss to explain the recent rash of fatal fires.

"Most fire departments are not reporting an extraordinary number of fires," Taylor said. "And while it's been cold, it hasn't been so cold that the weather would be a major contributing factor."

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