Five residents of a home on Bonsal Street in Southwest Baltimore… (Baltimore Sun/Peter Hermann )
Fire Capt. Darrin P. Danner pointed his flashlight toward the wires dangling in a basement bathroom, smoke still puffing from the walls of the burned-out rowhouse on Bonsal Street, in the far southeastern corner of Baltimore.
It's where the investigator believed the blaze started before it raced along the ceiling to the staircase and up to the main floor. It was 4 a.m., and the sleeping occupants heard the alarm from the smoke detector and escaped unharmed.
"They are lucky to be alive," Danner said of two young men renting the basement in the two-story brick house just off Boston Street. "They got to the steps just before the fire cut off access."
As the winter cold sets in, a time when the number of fires across the city typically increases, the three men and two women living on Bonsal Street are among the survivors — a far more common occurrence in Baltimore now than in years past.
Fire deaths in the city dropped to 17 in 2011, the lowest since the department started keeping track in 1938. The high was in 1984, when 88 people died. Officials attribute the low number to the nearly "universal availability" of smoke detectors, along with stricter building codes, more modern housing, fire-resistant mattresses, cigarettes that go out when dropped and child-proof lighters.
These seemingly minor advances have a cumulative effect, and cities across the country are just now reaping the benefits, experts in fire safety say. Fire deaths are down, in some cases near or at record lows, in Washington, New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
Baltimore Fire Chief James S. Clack said he is pleased with reaching a "historic low" but said that 17 deaths, one of the highest per-capita rates in the country, "is still a tragedy."
Focus on prevention
Baltimore was one of the first cities to give away smoke detectors, starting 20 years ago, and firefighters have handed out a quarter-million of the devices. Now, anyone in the city can call 311 and a firefighter will visit, on the same day, and install a detector with a 10-year lithium battery on every level of a home for free.
Two years ago, Maryland required every new home to have sprinklers installed. Clack said he wants to go even further and require every house in Baltimore undergoing a substantial renovation to have sprinklers, which he said would cost an extra $2 per square foot.
"Smoke alarms alert people to fire," Clack said. "Sprinklers put the fire out. It's like having a firefighter in your home 24-7."
On Thursday night, a sprinkler extinguished a kitchen fire in a third-floor apartment on Loyola Northway in Northwest Baltimore. Officials said firefighters arrived within four minutes of being dispatched and the fire was already out; no one was injured.
John Hall, the director for analysis and research for the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit in Massachusetts, said Maryland's sprinkler law makes it one of the leading states in fire prevention.
He added that cities across the country are starting to benefit from tighter regulations and housing codes, along with fire-resistant products. "A thousand little things add up to big things and save lives," he said. "The number of fire deaths [is] falling in places of all sizes and locations."
Shannon Frattaroli, a professor with the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said Baltimore is the largest U.S. metropolitan jurisdiction to have sprinklers required in all new one- and two-family homes.
"Now is really an exciting time for fire protection," said Frattaroli, who studies fires from a health standpoint. Across the country, Frattaroli said, "we're seeing a tremendous increase in the passage of laws" regarding fire safety.
Baltimore's historically low fire-death total of 17 is tempered when compared to those of other cities. Washington lost six lives to fires in 2011, down from 11 in 2010 and 19 in 2009. In New York City, where 276 people died in fires in 1990, just 64 perished last year.
Baltimore still ranks among the highest in per-capita fire deaths, with a rate last year of 2.69 per 100,000, slightly ahead of Philadelphia with 2.13. Detroit was among the highest with a rate of 5.1, and Boston, New York and Los Angeles were all under 1.
Fire deaths also decreased in Maryland as a whole last year, with 67 fire fatalities reported across the state down from 71 in 2010. Nearly 80 percent of the people who died were in their own homes, and more than half were killed in fires that broke out when most people are typically sleeping. Those are the hours, the Maryland state fire marshal's office says, "when most of us depend on life-saving devices such as working smoke alarms."
Last week's fire on Bonsal Street in Southeast Baltimore was typical — a one-alarm blaze in the middle of the night in a brick rowhouse. It was under control in about 45 minutes.