Sirens Are A Fitting Part Of Event

City Marks 150 Years Of Its Fire Department As Trucks Roll To Blaze

July 26, 2009|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,

As if on cue during an event to mark the Baltimore City Fire Department's 150th year, sirens shrieked and ladder trucks raced up North Gay Street just minutes after the fire chief stepped up to the podium.

"That noise is a working fire going on," James S. Clack, chief of the city's Fire Department, told the crowd of onlookers, firefighters and officials who gathered Saturday at War Memorial Plaza downtown. "If it gets any bigger, we might all have to leave."

Speeches praising the department's dedication and perseverance would be interrupted twice more as a fire under way on Belair Road went to two alarms, then three. Each time, several of the firefighters in attendance at the ceremony headed off toward trucks parked around the grassy plaza across from City Hall.

Clack, who oversees a department of some 1,700 employees, said the operation has expanded and improved from the days when the first city firefighters had only buckets and axes, but no engines, to work with.

These days, the department faces new challenges, including taking the brunt of the city's public safety cuts in this year's budget, losing $3 million from its budget. The department has always managed to avoid layoffs, officials said Saturday.

Officials praised the department's resilience over the decades, surviving challenges such as the city's Great Fire of 1904, the Depression and the deaths of more than 150 firefighters in the line of duty.

Fire officials recalled how the downtown firehouses had been relocated into other neighborhoods as new, fire-resistant buildings replaced old wharves and warehouses.

"We never laid off anybody," said Donald Heinbuch, assistant chief of operations. "We relocated members."

"The strength of this fire department has been the courage, perseverance and bravery of all its members," said Stuart Nathan, the city's fire commissioner. "It's a story of ordinary men and women ready to rise to the occasion on the spur of a moment, living together, eating together and working together as a team."

Saturday's ceremony drew attendees of the annual Firehouse Expo, a six-day conference that ends today at the Baltimore Convention Center. That event included exhibits of new firefighting products, hands-on training and educational seminars.

Among this year's offerings: a seminar showing fire chiefs creative ways to save money and reduce overhead to avoid layoffs.

Mark R. Nugent, a battalion chief for the Chesterfield County, Va., Fire Department, in town for the fire expo, called the Baltimore department's 150th anniversary "a big deal."

Charles Lee Bollack, a Perry Hall resident, who served as a volunteer firefighter in the city from 1962 to 1995 and was named an honorary fire chief, attended the event with his wife.

He recalled growing up in Southeast Baltimore and helping out his neighborhood firehouse, riding his bicycle to fetch subs and ice cream for firefighters he called his mentors.

He remains active with the city's department, helping to teach children fire safety.

Reaching this milestone "shows the dedication of men and women for 150 years in this department, and they're still dedicated today," Bollack said.

"It's in your blood."

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