Baltimore's Fire Department is overhauling its rescue teams and converting its Locust Point station into a new command center — moves designed to increase the availability of firefighters trained to work in deep water, collapsed buildings and other dangerous locations.
Fire Chief James S. Clack said the changes — which come after a December accident that shut down the dive team — are needed to address shortcomings in the agency. Baltimore, he said, has fallen "a little behind" other big cities since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when rescue units nationwide were re-evaluated.
"We want to make sure that we have a quicker response to special operations calls," he said. "They aren't that common; they're much less common than EMS or fire calls. But when they happen, generally there are severe consequences if we don't get there quickly with people who are qualified to handle the event."
New training has begun, but the full program will likely take two years to implement, Clack said. An exact cost for the overhaul has not been determined, but training costs will likely run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and costs of "several thousand dollars per year per firefighter" to maintain training and equipment are also expected.
Largely because of those expenses, the plans have drawn criticism from some department members and union leaders.
Rick Hoffman, president of the firefighters union, called the plan a waste of money at a time when neighborhood fire companies are being closed because of budget restrictions. Two closed in July, and a third is set to close Monday.
Hoffman, who estimated that special operations account for fewer than 3 percent of all department responses, said department leaders are "throwing more money, in my opinion, down the drain."
Michael Campbell, president of the Baltimore fire officers union, agreed. "If we don't have funding to keep fire companies open, then I think some things should be put on hold until we find the money."
Clack said he is "sympathetic" to concerns about the closed companies. But the cost of the new Special Operations Command program will be "much less than the cost of keeping even one fire company in service," which is about $2.2 million per year, he said.
A review of special operations began early this year, after a December accident in which a department diver found himself at the bottom of a reservoir without an oxygen supply, officials said.
The diver, whose air supply line became pinched under water, performed a rapid ascent to the surface that caused him to experience decompression sickness and forced him to spend time in a hyperbaric chamber. Though he was cleared to return to diving two weeks later, officials shut down the dive team — it hasn't functioned since — and launched an investigation into what went wrong.
The investigation uncovered problems with how dive equipment was stored — the oxygen line had been kept against manufacturer recommendations in a barrel, giving it a shape "memory" that caused it to pinch — and with how team members performed predive checks, said Paul Moore, deputy chief of training.
Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said it is "fiscally prudent" to improve the efficiency of special operations teams and noted that federal Homeland Security funding is covering part of the bill.
"It's the Fire Department's job to plan for the worst and protect the lives of everyone in every part of the city, including our port," O'Doherty said in an email, recalling the 2004 capsizing of the Lady D water taxi, in which five people died and rescue divers spent 10 days recovering bodies.
"Anyone who lived in Baltimore when we had the water taxi tragedy understands the importance of having a state-of-the-art dive and special rescue operations team," he said. "They risk their lives to rescue people in very dangerous conditions, and I don't know why anyone would suggest that they don't need the best training, equipment and a seamless management structure."
As the new program rolls out, about 50 additional firefighters (more than double the number in the city's old rescue setup) will be trained in technical rescues, rescue diving and other emergency operations, officials said. That will allow the department to move away from its current "pager-style" system, in which specially trained members must be paged to come to work if they are needed while off duty, said Jeffrey Segal, assistant chief of operations.
Rescue operations in Baltimore County are covered by a mix of career and volunteer firefighters, but at least 10 career members trained in special operations are on duty around the clock at the Texas station, said Michael Robinson, the county's chief of special operations. Anne Arundel County maintains on-duty special operations personnel around the clock out of multiple stations, said Chief Michael Cox, a Fire Department spokesman.
The Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services stations special operations members throughout the department, and several are generally on duty on any given day, said Julia Lynch, a department spokeswoman. The county's dive team uses a pager system, she said.
Pager systems make sense for smaller jurisdictions like Howard, Segal said. But the city has enough special operations demand — and will have more under Rawlings-Blake's initiatives to attract more people to downtown events such as the Grand Prix — that it "should not be calling people back in from home from West Baltimore or Harford County or Carroll County" in emergency situations, he said.
"If we see a gap in our coverage, we should cover it, and that's what we're trying to do," Segal said.
In addition to its special operations duties, the Locust Point station will retain its truck and medic units and continue to fight fires in its coverage area, said Moore, who oversees the department's training academy. The station's engine will be upgraded to a squad unit, which can handle vehicle extractions.
While the dive team remains out of service for the time being, Jeff Dickinson, a firefighter/paramedic and a member of the team for about 20 years, said members are happy that department leaders took the December incident seriously and are providing new resources.
"It's unprecedented what we're going for here," Dickinson said, noting $20,000 in grant funding has been slated for new dive equipment. "We're raising the bar on ourselves."
The first round of training got under way in early September, and all those stationed at Locust Point have been told they will have to train to become part of the Special Operations Command or find a new station to call home.
Among the current Locust Point members, Moore said that "everybody doesn't want to hang off a rope, and everybody definitely doesn't want to dive in the harbor." But there will be other jobs to be filled in the command, he said.
Hoffman and Campbell questioned the selection of the Locust Point station as the new command center. The station is one of the city's least busy, is in a nice neighborhood, is just one level with no stairs and being stationed there has been a pre-retirement reward for older members, Hoffman said.
"A guy in [Special Operations] is a guy that's in shape, is able to run — I want to say is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound — and you have very few of that down in the Locust Point station," Hoffman said. "I'll be honest, the guys are still able to do a good job, they're still good firemen, but they have some years under their belts."
Moore said when he was looking for a station for the new command center, Locust Point stood out for a number of reasons. He wanted a station that wasn't very busy and could be better used. He also wanted a station close to water to facilitate coordination with fire boats, and close to downtown to ease coverage during big events at the Inner Harbor.
Segal said the transition will be difficult for some members but worth it for the department. The "mile-high picture" of the program, he said, can't just be about the Fire Department and its members.
"We've really got to think about the end result," he said. "What's best for the community?"