Deadly delay?

Our view: In a city that's responsible for more than a third of Maryland's fire deaths, Baltimore officials must find the money to end rotating closures of fire companies

December 11, 2009

We may never know for sure whether the rotating closure of a firehouse in West Baltimore contributed to the death of Sam Davis this week. But we do know that if Truck 18 had been on duty, firefighters might have arrived at Mr. Davis' burning row home one or two minutes earlier, and that could have made all the difference to him and his daughter, Fran Wilder, who was badly injured.

Right now, five city fire units are closed each day on a rotating basis to help cope with the city's budget woes. But in the context of the $2.2 billion budget, the savings are staggeringly small - as little as $3.5 million would keep all the companies on duty through the end of the fiscal year. About $4 million would do that and prevent the disbanding of a company planned for permanent closure. It is simply inconceivable that the city doesn't spend $3.5 million on things that are less important than making sure firefighters can get to the scene of a blaze as quickly as possible.

Moreover, as City Councilman Nick D'Adamo points out, the rotating closures force fire companies to work in parts of the city they don't know well. On a recent ride-along with firefighters, he found them confused by the unfamiliar streets - literally poring over maps in the back of the truck to figure out where to go.

Fire Chief James Clack acknowledges the administrative and operational difficulties the budget cuts and rotating closures have placed on his department. Between the closures and regularly scheduled training exercises, it has become a challenge to make sure that firefighters can arrive on the scene of a blaze as quickly as necessary, and commanders have to be much more aware of which companies are on duty at what times.

The idea behind the rotating closures was to try to weather what officials hoped would be a temporary budget shortfall. Closing stations entirely, Chief Clack said, meant they would likely never reopen, and he and others hoped to be able to restore full service when the recession ends. But the budget crisis the city faces is only getting worse, and he concluded before this week's fire than it was time to shutter some stations and reduce the rotating closures.

That's the right decision for him to make as the manager of his department, but it's not one the city should allow to come to pass.

It is true that Baltimore faces profound budget problems. It has cut tens of millions from the budget in the current fiscal year and expects to face a shortfall of more than $100 million next year. But times of fiscal stress are when the mayor must demonstrate what the city's top priorities are. Baltimore suffers the most fire fatalities of any jurisdiction in the state by far; in the first six months of this year, 17 city residents died in fires, more than a third of the statewide total. Funding that helps prevent more such tragedies should be the last to go.

But the death of Mr. Davis, whose son, Sam C. Davis, is the director of budget and administration in The Sun's newsroom, points out other faults with our fire safety system. An initial 911 call was garbled, and trucks at first went to the wrong address. They couldn't rely on caller ID because the call, like half of all 911 calls, came from a wireless phone.

Most of the time, that's not a problem. Maryland was one of the first states in the nation to have blanket coverage for an enhanced 911 system that allows operators to instantly triangulate the position of a caller on a cell phone, but in this case, dispatchers got information no more specific than the cell phone tower that handled the call. The most likely explanation is that the phone used to make the initial report of the fire was too old and wasn't equipped with the necessary GPS technology.

The Federal Communications Commission has required all wireless carriers to make sure that technology is on at least 95 percent of their phones in service, but the rule doesn't go into effect until Sept. 1, 2012. The FCC established a five-year phase in for the regulation to give wireless carriers more time to comply. It must not delay any further.

Readers respond
It is a shame. I still don't see political people coming up with good solutions to budget woes. It used to be every time there was a budget crunch, the plan was to cut teachers, cops and firefighters. And they always found money to not do it, until Mayor Schmoke. Now they are doing it more frequently. Maybe the city needs to look at what it gives away and stop some of that.

Richard Smith

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