Questions answered about recent Baltimore fires

  • Baltimore firefighters battle a four-alarm blaze in the city's historic Mount Vernon neighborhood.
Baltimore firefighters battle a four-alarm blaze in the city's… (Tim Swift, The Baltimore…)
December 07, 2010|By Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

As the cleanup began for two five-alarm fires that hit downtown less than 12 hours apart, questions were raised about how the weather and rotating firehouse closures affected efforts to battle the blazes.

On Tuesday, Fire Department and union officials answered some of those questions, and explained some unfamiliar terms.

What is a five-alarm fire?

An alarm assignment is a direct measure of the amount of emergency equipment and personnel responding to a fire. It's also an indication of the seriousness or difficulty in fighting a particular blaze, according to fire officials.

When a fire is reported in Baltimore, five fire engines, two ladder trucks, two battalion chiefs, a safety officer and a medic respond to the scene, said department spokesman Chief Kevin Cartwright. When a second alarm is called, five more engines, two more trucks, a battalion chief and another safety officer and medic unit are dispatched. The response for subsequent is alarms based on the requests of the commander on the scene.

Specialized support vehicles — such as a mobile command unit, an air cascade vehicle to refill firefighters' air tanks and a vehicle with restrooms — may be sent depending on the number of alarms, said Stephan G. Fugate, president of the city fire officers' union. During colder months, the Maryland Transit Administration may send a bus so firefighters can rest in a warm location.

Each fire chief adjusts the amount of equipment that reports with each additional alarm based on his or her own judgment, said Cartwright.

Different jurisdictions may send different numbers or different combinations of equipment and personnel.

Is a five-alarm fire today the same as years ago?

"In times past, of course, fire technology wasn't what it is today, and what it would take to manage a fire today probably would have warranted more apparatus in the past," Cartwright said.

Fugate said that, in the past, the same amount of equipment and personnel would be sent for each additional alarm. But because of staff reductions, he said, fewer personnel and less equipment now respond.

But Cartwright stressed that improved technology, not budget constraints, led to smaller responses after additional alarms.

How did the weather affect the emergency response?

The wind creates the potential for fire to spread downwind, said Fire Chief James S. Clack, but the companies did a great job controlling for this danger, he said. Cold weather creates a slipping hazard when water used to fight a fire freezes, and Clack added that an aerial ladder became coated with ice during the Mount Vernon fire, making it difficult to take down.

Fire commanders on the scene said they called for a salt truck around 3 a.m. Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Department of Transportation, said that the request for a salt truck came in at 5:28 a.m., and that one arrived at the scene at 6:45 a.m. By mid-morning, firefighters were spotted sanding down sidewalks.

Did the rotating closures of fire companies affect the response?

City fire union officials have sent out announcements stating that one truck near the Baltimore Street fire was in the repair shop, and the next closest truck company was permanently closed in 2009 by Mayor Sheila M. Dixon's administration. The closest truck company to the Poplar Grove Street fire on Monday afternoon, which displaced four families, was also permanently closed, according to the news release.

However, Chief Clack said he did not think rotating closures had an impact on the response to any of the blazes. "Another truck in service probably wouldn't have made a difference in this case," he said.

The first engine to check in at the Baltimore Street fire arrived in less than three minutes. At the Charles Street fire, a ladder truck arrived within two minutes and 21 seconds, and an engine within 3 minutes.

"Certainly, as the fire chief, I'd like to have every company in service," he said. "But these are very tough budget times, and I think we're doing well with what we have."

When was the last serious fire in the city?

In September, three fires broke out in West Baltimore. Two four-alarm fires struck eight homes, some vacant, on opposite sides of the 1300 block of N. Calhoun St. Embers from that blaze ignited houses in the 1300 block of N. Carey St. More than 100 firefighters responded to the scene, including some from Washington.

Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell and reporter Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

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