Fatal Fire Spurs Calls To Rethink City's Rolling Company Closures

Nearest Company Was Idle At Time Of 911 Call As Part Of Money-saving Plan

December 10, 2009|By Julie Scharper and Liz. F. Kay | Julie Scharper and Liz. F. Kay , julie.scharper@baltsun.com and liz.kay@baltsun.com

Neighborhood leaders, union heads and current and former Baltimore officials are stepping up calls to halt the money-saving practice of rotating fire-company closures after a man died in a rowhouse blaze early Wednesday just blocks from a shuttered firefighting unit.

City firefighters "are at the breaking point right now, and we might have seen that last night," said Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo, a member of a volunteer board that advises the Fire Department. "We need to give [the department] more money."

Since July, the city has closed five different fire units each day to shave roughly $3 million from the department's $142 million budget during lean times. But a growing number of critics say the practice puts the lives of residents and firefighters in danger.

Wednesday's efforts were hampered because dispatchers could not make out the address given by a frantic caller and initially sent units to the wrong location. Still, officials acknowledge that if the nearest truck company had not been closed, firefighters could have arrived in as little as two minutes, rather than the four it took after units were dispatched to the correct address.

Former Baltimore Fire Chief William S. Goodwin said the daily closures are tantamount to gambling with lives.

"The citizens close their eyes at night expecting us to protect them," Goodwin said. "The closures are like saying, 'Tonight we're going to take a chance in your community that nothing is going to happen.' It's putting so many people in danger and so many lives at risk."

Firefighters were called to a two-story brick rowhouse in the 3100 block of Presstman St. shortly after 3 a.m., and rescued two people from the second floor: a man in cardiac arrest in a bedroom and a woman in respiratory arrest in a hallway, fire officials said.

Both were taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center where the man, identified as Sam Davis, 76, later died. His daughter, 53-year-old Fran Wilder, remains hospitalized. Davis' wife, Mammie, 76, escaped the house without injury.

Sam and Mammie Davis are the parents of Samuel C. Davis, director of budget and administration in The Baltimore Sun's newsroom. Wilder is his sister.

The search-and-rescue company nearest the Davis' home, Truck 18, was closed overnight. Had it been in the station when the call came, the truck could have arrived in about half the time the first unit took to arrive, said Fire Chief James S. Clack. Firefighters on truck companies provide critical tasks of ventilating buildings and looking for victims, while those on engines are primarily responsible for operating hoses.

An engine arrived at the fire about four minutes after a second call with the correct address, well within national guidelines for arrival time.

"I'm for ending the rotating closures, but our budget is not big enough to keep everything open," said Clack, who earlier this week proposed permanently shuttering three fire companies to reduce the number of rotating closings.

The five companies now closed each day represent about a 10th of the units in the city, and as a result, "you're going to see a little bit of an increase in the response time" he said.

The fire came less than a day after Mayor Sheila Dixon and the chief met with council members to unveil a plan to permanently close one fire company and shave the number of daily closures to four. The department would need about $3.5 million, less than two-tenths of a percent of the city's $2.3 billion budget, to end the rotating closures through June, Clack said.

City council members urged the mayor to end the rotation, which presents logistical difficulties for firefighters as well as the hazard of removing a neighborhood's nearest protection.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke called the system "dangerous and demoralizing" because it moves firefighters from neighborhoods they know well. The city needs to find the money "to end the rotating closures at least for this fiscal year," she said.

D'Adamo said that he was alarmed on a recent ridealong to see that firefighters, working in a new area due to rotating closures, were confused by unfamiliar streets. "We were out there with maps in the back of the fire engine trying to figure out where we were supposed to be," he said.

Baltimore NAACP president Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr. called for a City Council hearing on the closure policy, and Dixon said Wednesday that the city was reviewing the system. "It is a concern of all of ours. We are assessing what we need to do," she said.

Asked if she believed the fatality was directly caused by the closure, Dixon said, "We don't know that. It needs to be investigated."

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