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Baltimore firefighter died of smoke inhalation, medical examiner's office says

City firefighter Lt. James Bethea died of smoke inhalation and his death has been ruled an accident.

Baltimore fire safety officer Lt. James Bethea died of smoke inhalation after falling through a floor at a vacant rowhouse, where he remained for hours before an off-duty firefighter happened to see his car outside and called for help.

Fire Chief Niles Fordalso announced Friday the creation of a new chief of safety position and a new rule requiring the last departing units to report to dispatchers that the scene is clear. He said an investigation, which involves department personnel and federal workplace safety officials, is continuing.

Ford said the department would consider additional policy changes, including requiring that safety officers work in pairs. Anne Arundel County has such a rule, while other neighboring jurisdictions try to ensure that safety officers aren't alone in dangerous situations.

"I am always concerned about the safety of our members. If anything happens to a member in our organization, not only does it affect the organization, it causes systemic traumatic impact to their family and the Baltimore City Fire Department family," Ford said. "We need to find out why."

Bethea, 62, was responsible for making sure firefighters were following proper safety procedures at a dwelling fire on North Avenue early Wednesday. He also was in charge of alerting firefighters to potential hazards.

It isn't clear when Bethea went to the house next door to the blaze and fell to the basement. He was not discovered until his vehicle was spotted more than three hours after all other personnel had left.

"We don't have all the information in yet," Ford said.

Ford said that officials are still collecting information from those who responded to the fire, and that an internal investigation could take months. It would be premature, he said, to discuss any more policy changes until the investigation is complete.

"Everyone on that scene or associated with that call … they are writing a report to tell us everything that happened and everything they put their hands on and everything they saw," Ford said. The crews that responded to the fire include personnel from five engines and two trucks, as well as two battalion chiefs.

Ford said investigators are still trying to determine whether Bethea sounded a "mayday" alarm on his equipment, but he said Bethea never verbally called for help on his radio.

Bethea had responded with other firefighters about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday. Fire officials said the scene was cleared and all units were recalled to fire stations or sent to other emergencies by 3:30 a.m. His body wasn't discovered until about 7 a.m., when his shift was scheduled to end.

Had Bethea left the fire scene, he would have reported back to the fire station, Ford said. But he said it's not clear whether anyone noticed him missing or raised any concerns.

"All of that is part of the investigation," Ford said.

The Baltimore Fire Department has a "two in, two out" policy for fire suppression to ensure that no firefighter is unaccompanied in a burning building, said Rick Hoffman, president of the city firefighters union.

But that rule wouldn't have applied to Bethea, one of the city's handful of safety officers, the city fire officers union president Mike Campbell said. Only one safety officer works each shift, he said.

Rich Marinucci, executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association based in Michigan, said safety officers often work alone, as their duties include working the perimeters of scenes and circling dwellings to look for potential hazards.

But some fire departments require that safety officers work together.

"We don't allow the safety officer to work by themselves because things can happen," Anne Arundel County fire spokesman Capt. Russ Davies said. "A lot of things happen inside a dwelling that can present hazards."

For example, he said, fires can cause walls or ceilings to become unstable, and lead to ductwork or wiring falling down. That can lead to injuries or a firefighter being trapped.

"We just try to avoid a situation where someone is by themselves," Davies said. "That's pretty uniform throughout the Fire Department."

Safety officers in Anne Arundel respond to dangerous calls, including house fires, Davies said. Typically, he said, safety officers remain outside until the fire has been extinguished. He said they might go inside to evaluate the building; then fire investigators take over.

For a safety officer to remain after others have left, Davies said, "would be very unusual here."

Baltimore County Fire Department spokeswoman Elise Armacost said that while safety officers often respond to fires on their own and may be on the scene by themselves, the department recommends that they not work alone in dangerous situations.

"As a general practice, we recommend firefighters of all sorts not work alone in dangerous environments," she said. "It's going to depend on the circumstances. Every situation is going to be a different."

Howard County fire spokeswoman Jacqueline Kotei said fire safety officers typically work with another firefighter on the scene. She also noted that the city department often confronts different conditions, including rowhomes and densely populated areas.

"Most of the time, we try to make sure they are working in pairs," she said.

Most fire departments require that when firefighters and other personnel leave a scene, they call in to dispatchers that they are "returning to service."

Armacost said head counts aren't routinely done, though they might be undertaken when firefighters are pulling out of a hazardous scene, such as a building collapse. Generally, she said, the incident commander staggers the release of fire units once a fire is under control.

"There's no one particular person who is out first," she said.

Bethea spent 40 years as a firefighter. His family and co-workers have recalled his dedication to the job and fire safety.

Viewings have been scheduled for Bethea from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at Wylie Funeral Home at 701 N. Mount St. The funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5200 N. Charles St. Interment will follow at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens.

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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