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Baltimore must prepare for more rioting

On April 27, the unrest following the Freddie Gray funeral is the worst Baltimore City violence since the riots of April 1968 following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when six days of fires and violence resulted in six deaths, 700 injured, 5,800 arrested and over 1,000 businesses and structures burned and looted causing roughly $13.5 million in property loss ("City rioting evokes memories of 1968 unrest," April 28).

At the time the '68 riots, the Baltimore City Fire Department consisted of 1,800 firefighters assigned to 58 engines and 29 ladder trucks housed within 67 stations strategically located throughout the city. The department was under the command of Fire Chief John J. Killen. In times of crisis, the city's off-duty firefighting force would be called back to work to staff reserve apparatus to build a firefighting force totaling 83 engines and 30 ladder trucks. Within an hour after riots broke out in the city on the evening of Saturday, April 6, 1968, this call-back program was implemented.

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In 1968, the calling for outside assistance (mutual aid) from surrounding fire departments was frowned upon. However, by Sunday evening, with the riots in full swing, several fire companies from Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties were working side-by-side with their city counterparts in combating the unprecedented number of fires.

Despite assistance from outside county fire departments, law enforcement and the military, there was still loss of life and damage. During a 10-hour period between 6:15 p.m. Saturday and 4:15 a.m. Sunday, there were three deaths, over 70 injured, 100 arrested, 250 structure fires and businesses looted (47 of the fires were considered major). It could have been worse.

In comparison to the first 10-hour period of last Monday's April 27 riots, where there were no deaths, 32 civilians injured, 19 structural fires, 144 auto fires and approximately 200 arrested, it seems that the city fared much better than in 1968.

From a fire service perspective, this is somewhat surprising since the city has cut the firefighting forces back drastically since 1968. Today, there are only 40 engines and 19 ladder trucks. Thirty-one stations have been closed, leaving just 36 to serve the city. Fortunately, the number of firefighters remains the same at approximately 1,800.

Despite the budget cuts, the region's fire service as a whole has improved and progressed well since. Baltimore City, Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties, as well as many other jurisdictions across the state, require the same standard of training for career and volunteer firefighters. All have been trained to meet National Fire Protection Association standards. Fire apparatus specifications, firefighter safety and health programs along with operating policies and procedures are comparable. Mutual aid companies were called in quickly within a few hours of the start of Monday's riots.

Communications have greatly improved. Today, by pressing a radio button, Anne Arundel County Fire units can communicate directly with Baltimore City as well as Howard and Baltimore county units. This modern technology didn't even exist in 1968. In addition, the National Incident Management System implemented following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has been practicing in the region for years. In the Baltimore region today, the city and counties run automatic mutual aid on first alarms, unheard of in 1968.

Most television viewers were appalled as they watched a rioter cut the hoses supplying needed water to firefighters working on the CVS drugstore fire. The same reckless acts occurred during the 1968 riots on numerous occasions. However, there were no smart phones available or security cameras to record the despicable act. Thanks to today's technology, the culprit as well as many looters and arsonists have been or will be eventually caught and prosecuted.

During 1968, as last week, firefighters were pelted with rocks and debris. At least two mutual aid units from West Annapolis and Elkridge sustained damaged windshields in the recent unrest. In 1968, this type of damage was decreased when small crews of National Guardsmen were assigned to ride on the fire units. Also three or four units would respond together in a task force concept rather than arrive on a fire piecemeal. A lone fire engine and crew is very vulnerable to rock throwing rioters.

There were no incidents of sniper fire this time as was experienced in 1968. Although no one was killed or injured by the sniper fire, firefighters had to seek shelter and discontinue operations until they were assured of their safety. As a result, many buildings continued to burn unchecked.

The Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) federal agency today has a remarkable record in identifying the causes of fires, finding arsonists and prosecuting them. This valuable resource was not available in 1968. Presently, the agency is conducting numerous fire investigations on Baltimore's recent fires.

Our future is predictable. Based on news talk shows, editorials and many opinions throughout law enforcement commentators, the six police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray are not going to be convicted. We need to remember the lessons of the Rodney King riots that occurred in Los Angeles in 1992 when the announcement of the acquittal of the convicted police officers was released.

The announcement resulted in the worst five days of rioting to ever occur in an American city in the 20th century. Fifty-three were killed, 2,000 injured and a billion dollars in property damage was sustained. Los Angeles was not prepared.

Baltimore has over 35,000 vacant dwellings. If arsonists, supported by a combination of low humidity and a 20-mile-per-hour wind, ignite just 10 percent of these structures, the city will be ripe for a conflagration. Add the vacant dwelling fires with fires set to the typical businesses in the riot-prone hot spots of the city and we could easily find ourselves in the same deadly situation as Los Angeles did in 1992, if not worse.

I urge our elected leaders, the state's National Guard, police and fire agencies to plan like never before to be fully prepared when the announcement of the fate of the six officer's charged in the Freddie Gray case is released. May we learn from the lessons of our tumultuous past and not repeat history's mistakes.

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Joseph B. Ross Jr., Linthicum

The writer is a retired division chief of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department and author of "In The Shadows of The Flames — Baltimore's 1968 Riots."

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