Baltimore fire officials spoke out Wednesday against a bill that would require body cameras on firefighters and place restrictions on entering vacant buildings, arguing that the legislation duplicates rules already on the books.
The legislation, introduced by Councilwoman Danielle McCray, would bar city firefighters from entering vacant buildings unless it he department “confirmed” an occupant was inside, the fire has consumed less than 25% of the structure and “structural and hazardous conditions permit a safe entry.”
Firefighters also would be barred from entering a collapsed structure unless someone’s life was in immediate danger, according to the proposed legislation.
The bill also would require firefighters to be equipped with a video and audio recording device to be used at the scene of fires.
The proposal, introduced in February, comes in the wake of a deadly fire in the New Southwest/Mount Clare neighborhood in January that 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.
In the aftermath of the 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.
During a council committee hearing on the bill Wednesday, McCray cited multiple fires that have injured Baltimore firefighters in the past two years and struck back at those she said were calling the bill a “knee-jerk reaction.”
“I believe it’s a call to action in an attempt to address a pattern and a practice and culture that routinely puts firefighters at risk,” she said.
City Fire Chief Niles Ford, who appeared before the committee in City Council chambers, said the department has “significant concerns” about the legislation.
In a memo to the committee, Ford said the policies proposed already are covered by the department’s manual of procedures or conflict with state standards.
Ford said that following January’s deadly fire a new policy regarding vacant properties was added to the departmental manual requiring firefighters to check the rear of a building before entering. Fire leadership needs flexibility to continue to change policies, Ford argued in his memo.
McCray questioned Ford about a policy in place during his time as deputy chief in Fulton County, Georgia, that barred firefighters from entering vacant or derelict buildings. Ford said Fulton County is more rural than Baltimore. City fires pose a threat to attached structures and the people inside, he said.
During her opening remarks, McCray played a video of firefighters in Raytown, Missouri, wearing cameras that display thermal images inside their helmets to assist with firefighting.
Ford said traditional body-worn cameras would be useless inside structure fires where thick black smoke prevents firefighters from seeing. Thermal imaging technology is used already by the department, he said, but those cameras are meant to assist with finding hot spots and do not record.
In his memo to the City Council, Ford said he was “prepared” to equip city firetrucks with cameras, although the suggestion was not discussed Wednesday.
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A video posted to Instagram this week by an unofficial account associated with the city’s Engine 14 shows firefighters entering a fire on Furrow Street. The footage from a body-worn camera is somewhat but not completely obscured by smoke.
The city’s Department of Finance, which did not take a position on the bill, estimated that it would cost $1.9 million to outfit the fire department with body cameras if cameras similar to those used by Baltimore Police Department were deployed.
No action was taken on the proposed legislation, which is being considered by the City Council’s public safety and government operations committee. McCray asked the final questions.
“Is there a culture within the department where companies race out of the station to beat each other to the fire?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ford replied.
“Do you believe the race to be first may create tunnel vision on the part of responding units where they are more focused on being first than they are on being safe?”
“Sometimes, yes,” Ford said, taking a long pause. “That’s part of the reason we put a policy in place, you can’t go into the structure until someone is actually there.”