With Catonsville cat rescue, firefighters get back into tree-climbing business

It’s the classic firehouse trope: A firefighter climbs up a ladder to rescue a cat stuck in a tree.

That sort of thing really used to happen fairly often, Baltimore County Fire Department spokesman Capt. Tim Rostkowski said. But in modern times, the department has left cats in high places to fend for themselves.

“It’s something we kind of got away from,” Rostkowski said. “It was deemed as not being an emergency thing.”

But on Feb. 15, Darnell Roberts, an EMT/Firefighter from Catonsville’s Fire Station No. 4, scaled a ladder and climbed down with a cat over his shoulder.

A call came into the 911 dispatch center at about 2:30 p.m. that day, requesting assistance at the unit block of Briarwood Road in Catonsville, Rostkowski said.

The cat was about 20 feet off the ground and was in the tree for two days, the department said in a Facebook post.

Rostkowski said the rescue is a part of a broader move across the county’s fire department, to return to rescuing animals when possible.

“I climbed the ladder,” Roberts said, “And I just reached my hands out like it was a baby and it crawled right to me.”

“The cat came right to him,” said Capt. Kevin Nace, who leads the shift that took the call. “He wanted out of the tree.”

The fire department and the station did not have the name or contact information of the cat’s owner.

Roberts’ heroism did not come without pitfalls — he said his crew gave him a “hard time” when he got back down, calling him “the Cat Whisperer.”

Nace said in his 30 years in the department, he has been on about three similar calls. On each one, he said, the safety of his crew is the priority.

“When I’ve been on calls, I assess it as: Is it safe for my guy to go up there?” he said.

On Feb. 15, Nace said, there was a sturdy branch to lean against, and the cat did not scratch Roberts.

“It used to be if you’d call 911, we’d say that we don’t really do this anymore,” Rostkowski said. “We’ve kind of gotten back to, if you call 911, we’re probably going to send somebody out.”

Though he could not point to a specific incident or policy change, Rostkowski said the change started a year or two ago.

“There’s a service value,” Rostkowski said, “And it’s a good PR value, being in the community.”

Asked how often the fire department receives calls about cats in trees, Rostkowski said they do not have an accurate number but estimated calls to rescue cats come in three to four times per week across the county.

“It’s more frequent than you might expect,” he said.

But Capt. Robert Siegle, of the Towson station, said he does not remember rescuing a cat from a tree in his entire firefighting career of more than 30 years.

“It’s not a very common thing,” Siegle said. “A lot of people say that’s what we do all the time, get cats out of trees, but no. It’s rare.”

Still, he said, if the Towson station were to receive a call about a cat in a tree, they would respond to the call.

Rostkowski said cat owners whose pets get stuck in trees can call 911 and that the fire department will likely respond.

The county, Nace said, usually sends someone to look at the situation and see whether it is safe to get the animal.

Still, Rostkowski said, there is no guarantee that dispatchers will send a crew immediately – cats in trees are considered a non-emergency request, he said, and on a busy day crews will direct their resources elsewhere.

“If they’re not busy and there’s no emergencies, if we can come out and lend a hand we will,” Rostkowski said.

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