When a fire broke out at a Canton warehouse April 22 and firefighters confirmed there were dangerous chemicals inside the building, it spawned some basic questions for reporters.
What sorts of chemicals were present, and what risks do they pose? Did they cause any harm to people, animals or the environment?
Officials with the fire department and Maryland Department of the Environment were forthcoming, explaining that powerful acids were stored in the warehouse for use in anodizing metals. They weren't flammable, and any that streamed out were diluted as they entered storm drains, officials said.
But questions about what the first responding firefighters knew about the chemicals provided less clear answers. Interviews with fire officials showed gaps between various sources from which they obtain information on hazards and what is provided to first responders.
Firefighters described a system in which information is gathered from hazmat forms, fire code inspections, informal walk-throughs of buildings and calls from concerned residents and business owners. In the case of the Canton fire, many of those sources provided information, though some pieces were more outdated than others.
The result was that dispatchers provided no information on the chemicals to the first firefighters to respond to the scene. More information surfaced in the hours and days after the fire, but was missing during the first minutes that could have been critical under more hazardous circumstances. Top fire officials said they would like to get more information in first-responders' hands, but they are challenged by resources and technology.
Much of the information isn't easily accessible. Fire officials showed a Sun reporter an arcane database of fire code enforcement inspection records that is accessible only in a series of filing cabinets in an East Lexington Street office or a database run on a software system so arcane, it doesn't support the use of a computer mouse.
While that means more time and steps to get the information into firefighters' hands, it also means more hurdles for investigative reporters in collecting public data on fire hazards.