Blaze renews staffing debate

Officials say local station lacked the force to battle fatal fire in timely manner

Outcome may not have changed

Baltimore trucks arrived before county equipment

April 04, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

As a fatal fire engulfed a Brooklyn Park rowhouse Tuesday morning, fire crews from Linthicum and Baltimore rushed to the blaze. But an unattended ladder truck sat idle just blocks away - because of budget cuts, there weren't enough firefighters inside Station No. 31 to operate the truck.

Fire officials said they don't believe the outcome would have been different if there were more firefighters at the station. The victim may have died right away, and the ladder truck that sat unattended cannot extinguish flames.

But Fire Department and union officials agree that several minutes were lost because the nearby station didn't have enough firefighters to respond, and they see the tragedy as an example of how short staffing has crippled the Anne Arundel County Fire Department. Staffing levels were cut last year by then-Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds at the request of County Executive Janet S. Owens.

"The big question is whether staffing levels are affecting our service," said Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, who represents the area. "I think they are."

Said Keith W. Wright, president of the county firefighters union: "Maybe nothing could have prevented that tragedy for that woman ... [but] it's reasonable to assume the more people you have and the more apparatus you have, the better chance you have."

The victim in Tuesday's fire has not been identified, and the cause of death has not been determined. Neighbors said a 73-year-old woman lived in the second-floor apartment where the body was found.

Asked if better staffing would have changed the outcome, Division Chief John M. Scholz, the department spokesman, said: "No self-respecting fire chief would want to speculate like that, but probably no."

With more staffing, he said, firefighters would have arrived at the scene sooner but would have been riding in a ladder truck that cannot extinguish flames. The engine with water was on another call at the time of the fatal fire.

Cuts and changes

Tuesday's incident has renewed discussion about staffing levels, which have been at the center of a debate within the Fire Department and county government.

Facing budget troubles last summer, Owens cut by five the number of firefighters working each day in three North County fire stations, including Station No. 31 at 5100 Ritchie Highway. Those five firefighters were made available Aug. 1 to fill vacancies elsewhere.

An Owens spokesman referred questions to Interim Fire Chief Frances Phillips. Phillips said she has begun looking into whether the department is staffed most efficiently. She also said Owens has tried to find more funding for the department, referring to the county executive's apparently dead efforts to enact a cellular phone tax as an example.

As cuts were made last summer, firefighters posted signs encouraging residents to call Owens and oppose them.

The staffing at Station No. 31 was reduced from eight to six paramedics/firefighters at a time. Before the cuts, two paramedics were assigned to an ambulance, three firefighters were assigned to a fire engine and three were assigned to a ladder truck.

After the cuts, two firefighters were assigned to the ambulance and the remaining four firefighters could operate either the ladder truck or the fire engine - but not both at the same time. Because of that change, equipment from Baltimore arrived before any Anne Arundel trucks or engines at Tuesday's fire.

Sequence of events

The sequence of events under scrutiny began at 8:47 a.m. when a neighbor called to report a fire and a person trapped inside at 908 Victory Ave.

At that time, both the ambulance and the fire engine from Station No. 31 were on other calls, Scholz said. The engine was on Hammonds Lane. The ladder truck sat unattended at Station 31.

At 8:52 a.m., an Anne Arundel battalion chief who was not yet on the scene, spotted the smoke and called for a second alarm, Scholz said.

At 8:54 a.m., a Baltimore ladder truck arrived, as did the battalion chief, Scholz said. At 8:55 a.m., the first engine - from Linthicum - was ready to fight the fire. (It was under control shortly after 9 a.m.)

The Linthicum engine drove about three miles to the scene. The Baltimore ladder truck drove across the city line, from 1.2 miles away. The Brooklyn Park truck remained at the station, 0.3 miles away from the blaze.

Scholz said the department was "very pleased" with its response times, "considering the distance." But he said the department strives to arrive at fires within seven minutes of when they start, before the heat grows to such a level that everything ignites.

In this case, firefighters arrived in seven to eight minutes of the call, but Scholz said the fire had started earlier.

No water

The National Fire Protection Association recommends that fire equipment travel four minutes or less to 90 percent of fires.

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