Canton fire shows gaps in information for responders

Dispatched to a one-story brick warehouse in flames on Baylis Street in Canton last month, firefighters did not know it contained 8,000 gallons of corrosive chemicals. But not because it wasn't known to the Baltimore City Fire Department.

Its hazardous materials permit database included the warehouse and chemicals, but is so arcane that it's impossible to point and click through it using a computer mouse.

The chemicals also were disclosed by the owner on an annual hazmat form required under a federal law inspired when a chemical gas leak killed 5,000 people in India in 1984.

But those sources aren't married with others that identify flagged buildings in the city's emergency dispatch system, called upon multiple times every day to send police, firefighters and ambulances to scenes of danger around the city. No single database contains a complete picture of all the information that might be relevant in emergency response, whether it's the presence of chemicals, a disabled person or a lack of exits, city fire officials said.

In the case of the Canton fire, that meant it took 11 minutes from the time the fire was reported to the time a hazmat unit was called to the scene. The fire caused no injuries, but environmental officials had to dilute runoff from the scene to protect neighbors, animals and the environment from caustic acids.

Fire and emergency management officials want to share more data and make it available to as soon as possible. They see a chance to do it in a planned upgrade of the city's dispatch system. But it will be difficult, they said, because of the city's tight budget. There isn't much left to invest in technology when money woes mean rotating fire company closures.

"There is absolutely the potential to get to that perfect world where the [dispatch system] is populated with useful information. The gap between here and there is money and resources," said Deputy Chief Raymond O'Brocki, Baltimore's fire marshal. "It sounds great to be able to do that, but then if you juxtapose that with the closing of fire houses, I think the average citizen would say, 'Keep my fire house open.'"

The fire broke out about 8:30 p.m. April 22 in the Canton shop of Eastern Plating Co. The company anodizes metals, a process that uses powerful acids to protect materials from rust or prepare them to be painted. The work requires mass quantities of sulfuric, chromic and nitric acids and sodium hydroxide, a powerful base.

It grew to a three-alarm blaze, and strong gusts that Sunday evening led firefighters to evacuate homes downwind along Toone Street. Days after the fire, the neighborhood of rowhouses was littered with ashes.

Neighbors said they were unaware of what went on in the warehouse. Its only windows to Baylis Street were painted onto the brick, and there was no signage alerting of dangerous chemicals inside.

Firefighters don't need to know immediately what hazards might be in a building, they said. They are trained to read fire conditions and respond. Firefighters also are trained not to blindly trust forms declaring what chemicals might be present in a burning building.

"First arriving units have to make very swift decisions on what to do," said Rick Hoffman, president of Local 734 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the union representing Baltimore firefighters. "As we get information, maybe from passersby, the owner of the building or neighbors, we gain our own knowledge and then we start making better calls."

But having more information as early as possible can help inform how fires are fought, preventing environmental and health risks, and even deaths, firefighters said.

Increasingly, such information is being included in dispatches in fire departments across the country. Baltimore County's dispatch system alerts emergency workers of hazards not only in the buildings they are responding to, but any in nearby structures as well, spokeswoman Elise Armacost said. New York City has been praised for its technology, which is capable of processing information on 50,000 emergency calls per hour.

Baltimore lacks more advanced technology despite deadly and disruptive chemical-related fire emergencies in the past.

When a train derailed inside the Howard Street Tunnel downtown in 2001, a chemical called tripropylene burned for six days, while caustic hydrochloric acid leaked out of another freight tank. In 1998, five workers died at a chemical plant in Wagner's Point when aluminum inside a metal alloy reactor exploded, causing a massive blaze. Accumulated sugar dust inside machinery in the Domino Sugar plant in Locust Point cause an explosion at that facility in 2007.

Firefighters did not have immediate information on the chemicals in the Eastern Plating warehouse because, at first, the fire was reported in the 1000 block of Baylis Street, two blocks from its actual address at 1200 Baylis. But even if the address had been reported correctly, 1200 Baylis was not flagged for dangerous chemicals in the dispatch system, said Battallion Chief Patrick Walsh, who leads the departments communications and information technology division.

He could not say why the building wasn't flagged.

Sources used to flag buildings include phone calls or visits from concerned residents or business owners to their local fire hall, as well as reports from fire code enforcement inspectors, Walsh said. That type of information is added to the dispatch database on a daily basis, he said. But that doesn't cover all the information in the arcane fire code enforcement database, which isn't accessed as often, he said. Fire code inspections take place once a year, he said, and the Eastern Plating warehouse was inspected in February.

"You should know what's in the buildings in your district," said David White, president of Fire & Safety Specialists Inc., a fire consultant in College Station, Texas. "We know how to put out the fires, but sometimes water is not enough."

There are other sources of information that city firefighters use that also aren't linked to the dispatch system. Fire companies are encouraged to make routine visits to nearby homes and businesses, at least once every three years or so. They write up reports on any hazards of note, keep a file in the fire house and send a copy to fire headquarters.

Firefighters hadn't done such a walk-through of the Eastern Plating warehouse since 2007, fire department spokesman Chief Kevin Cartwright said. The report from that inspection included information on hazardous materials and a layout of the building, he said. But such documents are not stored digitally; they are kept in manila folders.

Under a 25-year-old federal law, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, companies like Eastern Plating are required to disclose large quantities of dangerous chemicals to the Maryland Department of the Environment. The forms often are provided to city fire or emergency management officials, but the Fire Department seeks out state environmental officials for the most up-to-date information in the forms while fighting a fire, fire officials said.

The forms require companies to disclose any hazardous chemicals in their inventories, any physical or health hazards they pose, the amount used each day, and where and how they are stored. Eastern Plating filed its form for 2011 on Jan. 1, said MDE spokesman Jay Apperson.

The Mayor's Office of Emergency Management has been gathering the forms as it receives them and building them into a database to share with fire officials for use in the dispatch system. But there are no official plans to do that even as city officials work on signing a contract for a new dispatch system, potentially by the summer.

"Every fire that you have, you try to get better at receiving timely and accurate information as quickly as you can," said Robert Moloney, the office's director. "It's all about providing the person who is in charge on the scene with the timeliest and most accurate information possible for them to make decisions."

Putting more information at firefighters' fingertips depends on both technology and money. With the existing system, Walsh said, information like the chemical disclosure forms aren't added because it would have to be done by hand, and it would be difficult to remove or update once it has been entered. And the time it would take to add it means money, he said.

To save money, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has proposed closing three of the city's 55 fire companies. The move would not close any fire houses or require any firefighter layoffs. Union officials support the plan because, unlike permanent closures, there is still a chance that local fire companies familiar with nearby buildings are the first to respond, Hoffman said.

But fire officials see the benefit of more information, if not a means to share it.

"I think there's a lot of potential there if they get a [dispatch] system that is user-friendly," O'Brocki said. "I just don't know there is a lot of money there in a tight budget to have the kind of upgrades done that would be needed to marry all of these databases."