Shortly before 6 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 24, the first 911 calls came in to Baltimore’s emergency communications center, warning that a house was on fire in the 200 block of South Stricker Street. More than one caller described it as vacant. Most noted there were flames shooting out of the top floors. One of the nine early morning callers claimed there were kids inside. Records show that firefighters arrived at the fire within minutes.
What happened next would become the subject of an exhaustive 182-page report, released last week. It details a chaotic scene, where commanders lacked crucial information about what they faced in that fire. The results were horrific: Three firefighters were killed, and a fourth was seriously injured, making the fire one of the deadliest for first responders in the city’s history. Gone were: Lt. Paul Butrim, 37; Lt. Kelsey Sadler, 33; and EMT/firefighter Kenny Lacayo, 30.
The Stricker Street report, assembled by a panel of experts drawn from other fire agencies in the region, makes a compelling case that the tragedy might have been averted if the Baltimore City Fire Department had been better prepared for this moment. One of the most basic findings — a need to identify vacant buildings with visual marks on the exterior — is indisputable. Baltimore had such a program in 2010, but it was informally discontinued in 2012 amid complaints by neighbors who found such markings unsightly. The city only recently restarted the practice, announcing its relaunch in late October. Baltimore’s vacant homes, as The Sun has reported, burn at a rate twice that of the rest of the nation.
Last week’s resignation of Baltimore Fire Chief Niles R. Ford, who vowed to create a department “second to none” when he was hired in 2014, was entirely appropriate under the circumstances. But it would also be misleading to think that whatever went wrong on that cold January morning in the Mount Clare neighborhood was the fault of the department’s top leader alone. Investigators found other problems were evident that day. Early assessments of the building failed to take into account how the structure was a virtual tinderbox, damaged by a past fire and by exposure to the elements. The battalion chief on the scene also was overloaded with information, a circumstance that might have been alleviated if he had simply had a “technician” helping him monitor radio traffic and gather facts, as is standard in other fire departments.
And then there was the revelation that rival fire units compete against each other to be the first to arrive at incidents. While that did not necessarily directly impact the department’s response that day, it is cause for concern. Some level of competitiveness might be helpful for morale, but when fellow fire professionals see it as potentially causing other, more important matters to be neglected? That strongly suggests there are deeper cultural issues that need to be addressed.
Mayor Brandon Scott has pledged to bring a greater level of accountability to the BCFD, and that is welcome. He has noted that many of the problems detailed in the report have been known for years, and it’s time to “turn the page.” That may be true, but if so, where was the supervision by the mayor and Baltimore City Council during those months and years in question? Why did it take the deaths of three young, well-regarded individuals for greater scrutiny to be brought?
One hopes that the search for a new fire chief will not become the tiresome public sector game of whether to promote from within or hire from without. What we’d like to see established as the top priorities are hiring for competency and training personnel to keep better track of data regarding city housing stock. That might not sound as glamorous as learning how to bust down doors or carry victims to safety, but they could prove the most consequential skills of all.
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