The Baltimore City Fire Department was so undermanned during Monday’s five-alarm fire in Fells Point that Robert Maloney, director of the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management, took the unusual step of asking surrounding jurisdictions to send equipment to the city.
Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties rushed seven fire companies to the 500 block of South Broadway, where a vacant warehouse was burning out of control, while two companies from Harford County filled in at stations for companies fighting the blaze.
BCFD’s need for county units – and Maloney’s request for help made through the Maryland Emergency Management Administration – raises questions about how well Baltimore is prepared to handle fire emergencies as well as how deep the city should cut essential services.
“This is how far we’re stretched right now,” asserted Rick Hoffman, president of Fire Fighters Local 734, who said the city cannot afford to close more fire companies.
Three companies slated to close next month under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s 2013 budget plan all played an active role in Monday’s smoky blaze, The Brew’s review of department records shows.
Truck 15 and Squad 11 were among the first units to arrive at the scene, while Truck 10, finishing another call, sped from West Baltimore on the second alarm.
In response to Monday’s fire, the fire department also reactivated three fire companies on rotating closures. Firefighters on Engine 44 and Truck 12 were called to duty to cover two stations whose equipment was tied up during the four-hour blaze, while Engine 33 was among the city companies that fought the Fells Point fire.
No Comment from Fire Department
Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright did not respond to The Brew’s request for comment on whether the fire department had an adequate number of city firefighters to contain the blaze.
In previous statements, Cartwright has said that fire response times would not suffer from the proposed company closures.
“There’s still going to be a fire engine or fire truck operating [in the three stations] to provide the same level of fire services as it has been before the disbandment,” Cartwright has said.
The Brew has reported on the role of two of the companies scheduled for disbandment in recent rescues.
Truck 10 helped saved three children trapped May 6 in a burning house on West Lexington Street, while Truck 15 administered emergency medical aid to a baby stabbed by her mother at a social services office on April 24.
Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Fire Chief James Clack have been adamant that the three closings were essential to reduce the 2013 budget gap.
City Council Politics
However, in recent testimony before the City Council, Clack acknowledged that disbanding the companies would save only $971,000 over the next year. He said the savings would increase in future years.
Some of the savings would come from reduced pay for officers at the three closed companies (no firefighter would be laid off under the mayor’s plan, but fire officers would lose pay from demotions when joining other companies).
Rawlings-Blake has proposed halting the demotions in return for City Council support of her budget, which requires a majority of eight Council members to pass.
In a letter released to the media last Thursday, she indicated that nine members favor her priorities. They included Councilman James B. Kraft, whose 1st District would lose Squad 11, and Councilman William “Pete” Welch, whose 9th District would see Truck 10 close.
The mayor also said she has “been working” with William H. Cole IV, Robert Curran, Sharon Green Middleton, Nick Mosby, Edward Reisinger, Brandon M. Scott and Rochelle “Rikki” Spector to pass the budget with minor adjustments.
Warren Branch, chairman of the Council’s public safety committee, has expressed opposition to the closures, including Truck 15 in his 13th District.
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Council members Mary Pat Clarke, Bill Henry, Helen Holton and Carl Stokes have warned that the closings could compromise public safety.
Fire Threatened to Spread
Monday’s fire, whose thick plumes of smoke could be seen across the city, was reported at 1:36 p.m. in a partly vacant warehouse above a grocery store on Broadway between Eastern Avenue and Fleet Street.
The fire was declared a working fire at 1:42 p.m.
There was a second alarm at 1:44 p.m., third alarm at 2:08 p.m., fourth alarm at 2:33 p.m., and fifth alarm at 2:57 p.m. as firefighters struggled to put out the blaze.
The fire was finally declared under control at 5:45 p.m., although firefighters remained on the scene to hose down the building, whose upper floors and roof were badly damaged.
Over the course of the fire, businesses on Broadway and homes on abutting Regester Street were under constant threat. In the end, they suffered only smoke damage, according to the BCFD.
Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties contributed five engine companies and two truck companies to the complement of about 140 city firefighters.
The Joppa-Magnolia and Bel Air volunteer fire companies in Harford County also relocated their units into Baltimore City.
“The number of companies that had to come to Baltimore speaks volumes,” said Michael B. Campbell, president of Fire Officers Local 964, who has testified against the pending closures.
A high-ranking BCFD official said he did not believe Monday’s fire was undermanned, “but the rest of the city was not covered.”
At times during the fire, “there was like only 15 units left to respond across the city,” he said. Another officer said the department shied away from calling a sixth alarm “because we wouldn’t have any resources left.”
These and other officials described the request by Bob Maloney, the Mayor’s Emergency Management director, for county firefighters to join city forces as highly unusual.
“Usually we just contact counties by phone or radio and ask them to assist filling our stations. We don’t put out a request through MEMA, and we don’t have county [firefighters] working alongside city personnel,” said one source.
Maloney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The fire officers spoke anonymously to The Brew because city policy forbids employees from talking to the media without permission and in the presence of a public information officer.