Deaths raise questions about fire safety in Baltimore

The Northeast Baltimore fire that left five people dead Thursday morning underscores the danger of fires in homes without working smoke detectors in a city full of aging, closely built rowhouses, many of which are vacant, fire officials and local academics said.

A recent study of 600 homes in East Baltimore showed about 60 percent lacked working smoke detectors on every level. Additionally, one in three households misreported coverage — most often by reporting they had working detectors when they did not, said the study's author, Wendy Shields, an assistant researcher at the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Injury Research and Policy.

Shields has also studied the increased fire risk to Baltimore residents who live near vacant homes — there are more than 16,000 in the city — and said the combination of too few detectors and too few tenants in Baltimore leaves the door open to tragedies like Thursday's.

Those factors put everyone in the city at risk, not just those without detectors, she said.

"In a city of rowhouses, it's really important not just to worry about you, but also worry about your neighbors," she said.

The Denwood Avenue fire, which claimed the lives of a woman and four children, was so intense that when firefighters arrived — about 41/2 minutes after being dispatched — smoke and flames were pouring out of every window on the first floor, officials said.

The fire had already been burning for quite some time, in part, officials believe, because no working smoke alarms were installed in the home and family members were alerted to the flames only after the home had started filling with smoke.

"It was obviously a chaotic scene," said Fire Chief James S. Clack.

The five deaths nearly doubled the number of fire fatalities in the city this year, bringing the total to 11.

Clack said the Fire Department is working on multiple fronts to improve fire safety across the city. Since August 2011, it has been providing free 10-year smoke detectors to city residents. It has also been marking vacant homes and trying to increase community awareness of where they are, he said.

But not everyone in the city knows about the free-detector program.

"We constantly run into people who didn't know anything about it," Clack said. "That's our struggle."

Still, he said, progress is being made.

Shields, who is finalizing a third study on the Fire Department's program, said she and her colleagues accompanied the department while it distributed detectors to thousands of homes. They followed up six months later with about 700, and the working alarms were still installed in about 92 percent, Shields said.

"We're doing really well, and I think even with these deaths, we'll be on track to be doing better," she said.

Clack agreed, but said coming months — as residents start turning on heaters and other appliances to keep warm — are generally busy for the department.

"Between now and the holidays is when we tend to see people getting in trouble with heating appliances," he said.

Thursday's deaths come at a time of heavy scrutiny of the department from fire unions, the City Council and neighborhood associations, all concerned about a depleted force following the closure of two companies in July. Until Thursday, the low number of fatalities this year had been used by fire officials in recent days and weeks to defend the department's ability to excel despite the cuts and a tight budget.

According to statistics recently released by city officials, the number of annual fire deaths has generally trended downward since 1988, when there were 58. There were 20 in 2010 and 17 in 2011.

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