Fires killed fewer people in Baltimore in 2012 than in any previous year since such deaths have been tracked, with 12 killed in city blazes compared with 17 in 2011, according to city officials.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Fire Chief James S. Clack praised city firefighters and EMS personnel on Wednesday for the progress, and credited a citywide initiative to provide residents with free smoke detectors as a major factor in lowering the death toll. Rawlings-Blake said the end of rotating company closures within the Fire Department amid budget cuts has brought "regularity" to fire services in the city, despite requiring the permanent closure of two companies.
There were eight fatal fires last year in Baltimore. In seven of them, a single person was killed. An October fire in Northeast Baltimore killed five family members, including four children.
Rawlings-Blake and Clack said they are happy with the progress, but mourn the lives lost and remain committed to bringing city fire deaths to zero.
"Every single death is a tragedy. While I think it's important to note the progress we're making, not one of those 12 people can come back. It makes the work we're doing urgent," Rawlings-Blake said. "We will continue to strive for a safer city when it comes to fire deaths, so that no other family will have to suffer."
Said Clack: "We hope this year we can be in single digits, and make it toward zero someday. But that's going to take a lot more awareness, a lot more smoke alarms and a lot more hard work."
The city's death toll this year continues a downward trend that began in 2009, when there were 25 fire deaths. Before that, totals fluctuated — 2007 was a particularly deadly year, with 34 fire fatalities — but have remained well below those seen in the 1990s and 1980s, when Baltimore's population was substantially larger, according to city records.
The deadliest year since 1938, when fire deaths started being tracked, was 1984, when 88 people died. The city had about 767,500 residents then; it has about 620,000 now.
The city distributed 5,200 free smoke alarms in 2012, and Clack said the program — residents can request alarms by calling 311 — will remain a key tool in reducing fire deaths.
"We're just going to continue to plug away, continue to inch that percentage of homes that have working smoke detectors up, and I think that's going to do more than anything else to help us get this number down to zero," he said.
Clack estimated that only half of city homes have working detectors on every floor, as is recommended.
Another tool in 2013 will be a new system allowing fire dispatchers to track fire equipment across the city via GPS devices connected directly to the department's computer-aided dispatch system, Clack said.
The system is currently being tested, and will likely be activated for medic units this spring and for all fire apparatus later this year, Clack said.
"That's going to be a tremendous improvement from a technology standpoint," he said.
For the first time in many years, the city is also investing a substantial amount of money this year — about $7 million — in new fire engines and trucks, Clack said, which will improve the reliability of fire responses.
Despite the recent progress, Baltimore's fire death rate per capita — or by population — continues to make it one of the deadliest big cities for fires nationwide.
This year, the rate of civilian fire deaths in Baltimore per 1 million residents was about 19.3. In 2011, the national civilian fire death rate per million residents in cities of more than 500,000 people was 6.5, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
"It has a lot to do with the demographics of the city, the fact that a lot of the buildings here are very old compared to a lot of cities out west, the buildings here are very close together," Clack said of Baltimore's high rate. "We're getting that rate down to where it's more normal, so to speak, but it's still too high."