A note with racial overtones and a knotted rope found in an East Baltimore firehouse early yesterday triggered a probe by the city's fire and police departments, and the FBI has begun its own preliminary investigation into possible civil rights violations.
The note and the rope were discovered by two Fire Department employees -- one black, one white -- at the Herman Williams Jr. fire station at East 25th Street and Kirk Avenue. It was the second time in five months that the station has been hit with racial allegations.
The earlier incident, in May, later proved to be unfounded after fire officials determined that a decorated deer head mounted on the station wall was not done with racist intent, fire officials said at the time.
Yesterday, the local chapter of the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People and the Vulcan Blazers -- a group that represents black city firefighters -- demanded a federal investigation into the rope and note, while the fire union's president said critics should not jump to conclusions.
In a written statement, Mayor Sheila Dixon said she was "outraged by this deplorable act of hatred and intimidation. ... Threats and racial attacks are unacceptable anywhere -- especially in a firehouse."
Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., who plans to resign at the end of the year, said fire officials are working closely with city police detectives who are investigating the case as a possible hate crime.
"It's been pretty obvious during my tenure that this type of incident wouldn't be tolerated," Goodwin said. "It's not going to be tolerated now."
The discovery at the firehouse again threw a beleaguered department into turmoil over issues of race. In 2004, the department was criticized for hiring an all-white recruit class, and was pressed to change its testing and recruiting practices.
The department also is awaiting a report by the city's inspector general, who investigated allegations that several black firefighters cheated on a promotion exam. That report is expected to be released next week, a City Hall spokesman said.
The handwritten note found yesterday reads: "We cant [sic] hang the cheaters but we can hang the failures. NO EMT-I, NO JOB." A small stick figure with a noose and the word "Stop" was drawn below the message.
The note appears to refer to two issues that are sources of tension in the Fire Department: the cheating investigation begun in July and the push by top fire officials to compel emergency medical technicians to become certified as paramedics.
Since most of the calls for service in the city are medical calls, fire officials say the department now hires only full-fledged paramedics, who are trained to provide a higher level of care. Goodwin said the department has about 560 paramedics and 34 emergency medical technicians who still need to gain paramedic certification. He characterized members of the smaller group as being "on the bubble" of keeping their jobs.
One of the department employees who found the note yesterday is an emergency medical technician "in the process of training" to become a paramedic and the other is a paramedic, Goodwin said.
At a news conference at the Vulcan Blazers' headquarters near Druid Hill Park, President Henry Burris said his organization would demand a federal investigation by the Justice Department.
"We know there's been racial issues with the Baltimore City Fire Department, but this has reached the final level," Burris said. "Because whoever perpetrated it, whether they know it or not, this has reached the level of a federal hate crime."
An FBI spokesman based in Baltimore said yesterday that the bureau had opened a preliminary inquiry into possible civil rights violations stemming from the incident. She declined to comment further on the case.
Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, president of the NAACP's Baltimore chapter, referred to the note as a threat and said it should be treated as such.
"It's got to go federal," Cheatham said.
Joseph Armstead, a former firefighter and current vice president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said a culture of racism has always existed in the city Fire Department.
"I'm not really shocked or surprised," said Armstead, a firefighter for 16 years. "It's just getting outward now. And we're not going to tolerate that."
Chief Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman, said the two employees found the note and the rope about 1:30 a.m. and reported it to a supervisor at the station house. The supervisor notified a battalion chief.
The battalion chief went to the station house, lined up all of the employees, questioned them and demanded that each write a report, Cartwright said.
Baltimore police were called to the scene, said Sterling Clifford, a police spokesman. Based on the threatening nature of the note, police began a separate investigation, he said.
Stephan G. Fugate, head of the city's firefighters' union, defended the firefighters at the station, saying that they were the same ones who had come under scrutiny for the incident involving the decorated deer head and the racial allegations that proved to be unfounded.
"They're jumping to conclusions and assuming it was some racially heinous incident" targeting one of the medical technicians, Fugate said. "I think everyone needs to back off and let the investigation take its course."
Sun reporter Brent Jones contributed to this article.