About 10 years ago, Baltimore had a serious problem with boys setting fires in schools. Derrick Ready knew this better than anyone. A lieutenant in the Baltimore City Fire Department, he was assigned to put a stop to it.
The fires were dangerous, of course, but they were mostly a big nuisance, and a waste of taxpayer dollars.
More than 100 times a year, boys in middle school or high school, on a dare or as part of gang initiation, set a match to a paper-filled trash bin or some other flammable object and started a fire in a public school. Alarms sounded, students and teachers had to evacuate their schools, fire units and firefighters arrived.
Between 90 minutes and two hours of a school day were wasted each time.
"We had some schools that had gotten so bad that we parked fire trucks and engines outside of them, and the kids still set fires," Ready says. "It was embarrassing."
When he attended classes at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Ready heard firefighters from other communities refer to Baltimore as "the school fire capital of the world."
Ready didn't like that.
"I took it personal," he says. "You have to take it personal. Every fire started in every school I take personal."
Here are some numbers from the Baltimore City Fire Department:
There were 138 public school fires in Baltimore's 2003-2004 academic year. By 2008, there were nearly 500 more. That translates to an estimated 56,160 hours of instructional time lost between 2004 and 2008.
Ready was determined to see the fires end. So was the city fire marshal at the time, Raymond O'Brocki. In 2008, he challenged Ready to reduce the number of school fires by 50 percent within five years.
"He said, 'You do what you have to do,'" Ready recalls. "I said, 'Chief, how are we going to get [fires] down by 50 percent when they're still going up?' But I accepted the challenge."
Ready enlisted the help of the chief of the Baltimore City school police, Marshall Goodwin.
"I said, 'Chief, when there's a crime problem and you want to get crime down, the police officer walks a beat,'" Ready says. "Well, I'm a firefighter and I'm gonna walk the halls."
And that he did — first in the schools with the worst fire problems.
"There were trash cans in the hallways," Ready says. "I'd walk down the halls and I'd say, 'You see that trash can? Someone's gonna set that on fire, get it out of the hall.' … Or you had a school where the water fountain didn't work, so they had a portable water fountain and cups for the kids, and the kids would get a drink and toss the cups in a trash can in the hallway. So we moved the water fountain into a classroom and back into the hallways only during change of classes."
Bathrooms became the preferred place for a boy to set a fire. Ready had them locked and only opened during change of classes, with a teacher standing by.
He also ordered schools to lock or remove unused hallway lockers.
"In the first year, school fires went down 33 percent," Ready says. "In the next year, I worked harder. I spent 30 minutes at a time in each problem school, and I walked sometimes with Chief Goodwin for an hour. We walked those halls, and the number of fires went down again."
By 34 percent in the second year, according to the department.
"I walked with the principal sometimes," Ready says. "I got to know the kids."
That's the other part of Ready's job — getting to know the kids who start fires. More than 90 percent of them have been middle or high school boys.
"Peer pressure or gang initiation," Ready says, when I ask for the main reasons kids start fires. "If a boy involved with a gang starts a fire, he moves up in the gang faster. … If it's a girl who starts the fire, the problem is deeper. There's usually a problem at home."
The school system suspends students who start fires. Ready says he's been to the Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center — "Baby Booking" — and heard a boy say: "Hey, you're the guy that got me arrested."
Ready's response: "Yeah, and I'm the guy who's gonna get you out of here."
Ready gets them to admit to the offense, apologize and take part in a program that involves writing essays or making collages on fire safety, performing community service, and checking the smoke detectors in their homes every day. As a result of all this, a lot of students have stopped setting fires and have returned to school.
Most important: Since 2008, school fires are down 86.7 percent, according to the department.
On Friday, the Central Maryland chapter of the American Red Cross is scheduled to give a well-deserved Hometown Hero Award to Lt. Derrick Lamont Ready — a way of thanking him for taking fire safety in the city schools so personally.