Firefighters did not have immediate information on the chemicals in the Eastern Plating warehouse because, at first, the fire was reported in the 1000 block of Baylis Street, two blocks from its actual address at 1200 Baylis. But even if the address had been reported correctly, 1200 Baylis was not flagged for dangerous chemicals in the dispatch system, said Battallion Chief Patrick Walsh, who leads the departments communications and information technology division.
He could not say why the building wasn't flagged.
Sources used to flag buildings include phone calls or visits from concerned residents or business owners to their local fire hall, as well as reports from fire code enforcement inspectors, Walsh said. That type of information is added to the dispatch database on a daily basis, he said. But that doesn't cover all the information in the arcane fire code enforcement database, which isn't accessed as often, he said. Fire code inspections take place once a year, he said, and the Eastern Plating warehouse was inspected in February.
"You should know what's in the buildings in your district," said David White, president of Fire & Safety Specialists Inc., a fire consultant in College Station, Texas. "We know how to put out the fires, but sometimes water is not enough."
There are other sources of information that city firefighters use that also aren't linked to the dispatch system. Fire companies are encouraged to make routine visits to nearby homes and businesses, at least once every three years or so. They write up reports on any hazards of note, keep a file in the fire house and send a copy to fire headquarters.
Firefighters hadn't done such a walk-through of the Eastern Plating warehouse since 2007, fire department spokesman Chief Kevin Cartwright said. The report from that inspection included information on hazardous materials and a layout of the building, he said. But such documents are not stored digitally; they are kept in manila folders.
Under a 25-year-old federal law, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, companies like Eastern Plating are required to disclose large quantities of dangerous chemicals to the Maryland Department of the Environment. The forms often are provided to city fire or emergency management officials, but the Fire Department seeks out state environmental officials for the most up-to-date information in the forms while fighting a fire, fire officials said.
The forms require companies to disclose any hazardous chemicals in their inventories, any physical or health hazards they pose, the amount used each day, and where and how they are stored. Eastern Plating filed its form for 2011 on Jan. 1, said MDE spokesman Jay Apperson.
The Mayor's Office of Emergency Management has been gathering the forms as it receives them and building them into a database to share with fire officials for use in the dispatch system. But there are no official plans to do that even as city officials work on signing a contract for a new dispatch system, potentially by the summer.
"Every fire that you have, you try to get better at receiving timely and accurate information as quickly as you can," said Robert Moloney, the office's director. "It's all about providing the person who is in charge on the scene with the timeliest and most accurate information possible for them to make decisions."
Putting more information at firefighters' fingertips depends on both technology and money. With the existing system, Walsh said, information like the chemical disclosure forms aren't added because it would have to be done by hand, and it would be difficult to remove or update once it has been entered. And the time it would take to add it means money, he said.
To save money, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has proposed closing three of the city's 55 fire companies. The move would not close any fire houses or require any firefighter layoffs. Union officials support the plan because, unlike permanent closures, there is still a chance that local fire companies familiar with nearby buildings are the first to respond, Hoffman said.
But fire officials see the benefit of more information, if not a means to share it.
"I think there's a lot of potential there if they get a [dispatch] system that is user-friendly," O'Brocki said. "I just don't know there is a lot of money there in a tight budget to have the kind of upgrades done that would be needed to marry all of these databases."