Disaster crew leader lives in state of alert

Post-9/11 security, disaster response keep city fire captain constantly on the move

October 29, 2005|By GREG BARRETT | GREG BARRETT,SUN REPORTER

On a rare Friday off this month, Baltimore Fire Capt. Kenneth Hyde Sr. was pulled away from lunch with his wife at Rock Creek Diner in Pasadena to respond to a chlorine leak at the Montebello Water Filtration Plant. Two days later, he was jerked from his Sunday morning slumber to an oil spill that drained into the Inner Harbor.

Even after spending 10 days in New Orleans helping with the Hurricane Katrina cleanup, and sleeping on a cot in a gymnasium in nearby Greta, La., Hyde got just one day to rest when he returned home. On what was to be a second day off, he was called into Baltimore to run a demonstration on the city's new decontamination truck.

He said he rarely enjoys two consecutive days uninterrupted. And that's just his city job.

As chief of the 110-member Riviera Beach Volunteer Fire Company, Hyde, 39, answers another 300 calls a year.

That means he wears two uniforms, parks two taxpayer-owned customized trucks in his driveway, and on his belt or in his pockets are a pager for Baltimore, a Blackberry for Riviera Beach, and cell phones for both.

He is on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for both jobs. If he's not responding to calls for one or the other, he is probably attending or conducting training sessions on the weekends.

"We have people doing three and four jobs for the price of one," Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said.

Hyde embodies the new burdens placed on Maryland's 365 volunteer and career first-responder companies - firefighters and paramedics, mostly - since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The number of hours worked, the responsibilities and training with new equipment, and the impact on family all have increased significantly.

"The days of leaving work when the siren blows unfortunately does not happen anywhere near as often as it did way back when," said Lee Sachs, 67, president of the Maryland State Firemen's Association and a volunteer firefighter in Pikesville. "This usually means time away from home and family and hobbies and avocations and vocations."

Although Hyde always seems to be darting from one emergency to another, the agencies he serves are not complaining, and neither is he.

He is so gung-ho about terrorism preparedness he lies awake at night thinking of new strategies, equipment and ways to train. In his hazmat office are stacks of boxes with assorted gadgets purchased with federal anti-terrorism money. They include devices that detect chemicals and vapors in the air, in packages and in transit, and cameras that can be carried into contaminated areas to send video and audio back to command centers.

"Look at all the targets across the state of Maryland. Baltimore has some big targets; if you want to hit something you're coming here," he said, talking like a man on his fifth cup of coffee of the day. "We've got stadiums side-by-side. We've got the Inner Harbor. We've got a civic center. ... We've got to be ready."

Any terrorist act in the region will likely trigger the dispatch of the Baltimore hazmat team - 51 members on each shift, led by Hyde. His first obligation is to Baltimore. If he's paged by the city while on a fire call for Riviera Beach, he would hand over responsibility to his battalion chief and rush to Baltimore.

Even with dueling jobs that demand constant access, Hyde is hardly getting rich. His base salary in Baltimore is $67,000. Last year, he earned another $15,686 in overtime, most of it covered by federal homeland security grants.

His position as fire chief in Riviera Beach is not salaried; he won't draw a dime until 2015, when he turns 50 and earns a $300-per-month county pension.

For now, use of a $35,000 Riviera Beach fire chief's truck is his only perk. His other truck, a huge $45,000 Baltimore City-owned Ford F-series, is outfitted for hazmat emergencies and was purchased in 2004 as part of the city's homeland security upgrades.

Also, as part of the upgrades, several Maryland jurisdictions spent $2.9 million in federal money on new decontamination trucks. As Katrina victims were being evacuated to Houston's Astrodome last month, Hyde was in Houston, where Baltimore's new truck received its final touches.

Three days later, the $295,000 vehicle was driven directly from Texas to St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans. It has six private showers and changing rooms with instructions printed in English, Spanish and Braille, and replaces rigid pushup tents used to shower people who have been exposed to hazardous chemicals.

Hyde had not thought the city's truck would get its first test in response to a natural disaster. "I thought terrorism; the furthest thing from mind was a hurricane situation," he said.

In New Orleans, 400 to 700 people were decontaminated daily by Maryland's first responders from Baltimore City and Howard County, who arrived in a 46-truck convoy, Hyde said. They also used ladder trucks and fire engines to wash off several hundred vehicles every day.

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