Lights, siren to become optional

Fire Department rating its responses

July 01, 2008|By Jessica Anderson | Jessica Anderson,Sun Reporter

This August, Baltimore City residents might notice fewer sirens from firetrucks speeding to emergencies.

Baltimore Fire Chief James S. Clack said the city Fire Department will launch a multitiered response system to save the city money spent sending unnecessary equipment on nonemergency calls and to increase the safety of emergency responders and other drivers on the road.

"We just want to make sure we are matching our response with our risk," Clack said.

Under the new policy, calls to the department will be deemed "hot," "warm" or "cold."

In "hot" responses, emergency responders will react with sirens and lights to move quickly through traffic. On "warm" calls, the first units due to the scene will respond as if the call were an emergency, and additional units will follow without using their lights and sirens. On "cold" calls, responders will move with traffic.

The plans come after a fatal accident in December when city Truck 27 sped through a red light and crashed into an SUV at Park Heights Avenue and Clarks Lane in Northwest Baltimore.

The SUV driver, Iryna Petrov; her husband, Mikhail; and a friend, Igor Saub, were killed. The firefighters, who suffered minor injuries, were responding to a call, which turned out to be a pot burning on a stove.

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who introduced a resolution calling on the department to study a tiered emergency response system, said the new procedure could reduce the number of times responders must put themselves and other drivers in danger.

She said the accident in December was a big factor in her decision to take up the issue.

The city's action also comes amid increasing fatalities for firefighters responding to and returning from emergencies. The National Fire Protection Association found that in 2003 and 2004, more firefighters were killed traveling to and from emergencies than in any other part of their jobs.

Anne Arundel and Howard counties have already adopted policies to separate emergency and nonemergency calls.

Dan Merson, department chief of field operations for Howard County, said a tiered plan has worked "quite well" in Howard County, "limiting the risk to the public and us."

In Howard County, firefighters use their lights and sirens on all calls when emergency medical services are required but not in all other cases.

Merson said that nonemergency calls include fire alarms and sprinkler systems going off when there is no smoke or evidence of fire. Other common calls include downed wires or people locked out of their cars. There are 15 types of nonemergency call in Howard County, he said.

Anne Arundel County has a similar system.

"If there is a Dumpster on fire, we don't send crews with lights and sirens," said Matthew Tobia, battalion chief in the Anne Arundel County Fire Department. He said that a tiered system enables crews to balance the risk to themselves and the public with the need to get to emergencies quickly.

He said that every 911 operator asks questions to determine the severity of the situation. If there is no life or property hazard, it is treated as a nonemergency, he said.

The tiered system will also help reduce costs, with fewer vehicles responding to calls, said Clack, who worked with a similar system in Minneapolis before coming to Baltimore this year.

"It's going to save on the amount of equipment that we have running red lights and sirens," he said. "Each time we are running down the street, we are putting the public at risk to save other people, and that's why we do that, otherwise we would just be going with traffic."

Rawlings-Blake said that the city will help educate the public about the new system in the coming months.

"We'll make sure we do our part," she said. "We don't want people to think at all, if there is an actual fire, that the Fire Department will not come. It's a matter of how they respond."

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