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Politics

Baltimore councilwoman wants firefighter body cameras, new rules to enter vacant homes in wake of deadly blaze

Following the death of three Baltimore firefighters this year in the collapse of a vacant home, a Baltimore City Council member has proposed a bill creating restrictions on when firefighters can enter vacant buildings and requiring firefighters to wear body cameras.

The bill, introduced Tuesday evening by Councilwoman Danielle McCray, would bar city firefighters from entering vacant buildings if 25% or more of the structure has been consumed by fire. Additionally, firefighters could only enter a vacant building if the department “confirmed” an occupant was inside and “structural and hazardous conditions permit a safe entry.”

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Firefighters would be barred from entering a collapsed structure unless someone’s life was in immediate danger, according to the proposed legislation. The bill also requires firefighters to be equipped with a recording device that collects audio and video to be used only at the scene of fires.

The proposal comes in the wake of last month’s deadly fire in the New Southwest/Mount Clare neighborhood, which claimed the lives of fire Lts. Paul Butrim and Kelsey Sadler and paramedic/firefighter Kenny Lacayo. The trio were trapped in a vacant home at 205 S. Stricker St. when it collapsed, also seriously injuring a fourth firefighter. The blaze in Southwest Baltimore is one of the deadliest for firefighters in the city’s history.

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During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, McCray applauded the firefighters for their bravery and said their deaths have brought pain and grief not just to their families but also to the residents of Baltimore.

“Although we cannot bring back those we have lost, as a council we are in a position to abate the great consequences of future eras,” McCray said. “And we can see to it that safety measures and equipment are in place to ensure Baltimore City does not incur such great loss again on our watch.”

McCray said her legislation was based on best practices from both the National Fire Protection Association and the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

The proposal does not, however, have the immediate blessing of city firefighters.

Rich Langford, president of the Baltimore Firefighters Local 734, said neither he nor leadership from the city’s other fire union was consulted on the legislation.

Langford strongly objected to idea of body cameras on firefighters, arguing they regularly handle medical calls where sensitive information is shared.

“We go into a house with a camera, people will no longer trust us with what’s going on,” he said.

Langford, whose union represents the department’s rank-and-file members, said he also has concerns about City Council legislating policy for the department.

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McCray’s proposal also states that department personnel cannot exceed 15 mph over the speed limit on their way to an emergency.

“I think that’s an internal operational issue the department should be looking to address and not the City Council,” Langford said.

Blair Adams, spokeswoman for the fire department, said Fire Chief Niles Ford was not consulted on the legislation in advance.

“We do however look forward to a robust conversation with the Council,” she said.

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In the aftermath of the Stricker Street fire, questions have been raised about whether the firefighters should have entered the building, which was also the site of a 2015 fire that injured three firefighters.

On the day of the fire, Ford cited an occupied home next to the Stricker Street property as a potential reason for the firefighters going inside. Battalion Chief Josh Fannon, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association, later said first responders were told there may be a person trapped inside the dwelling.

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Mayor Brandon Scott has ordered a citywide review of Baltimore’s operations related to vacant properties following the deadly fire. During an announcement of that review, Ford said the city has a computer system onboard emergency vehicles to provide details about the condition of a property before firefighters enter.

Within that program, certain structures are marked unsafe, Ford said. Asked whether the system has been updated regularly, Ford replied: “It should be.”

“We’re trying to evaluate how recently it’s been updated,” he said at the time.

The citywide review is due to be completed by the end of this month.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating the Stricker Street fire and has not yet determined a cause. Investigators are seeking a “person of interest” related to the blaze, and a $100,000 reward has been offered for information about the person.


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