When a Baltimore fire lieutenant fell through the floor of an abandoned rowhouse in 2014 and died of smoke inhalation, a federal occupational safety agency recommended the fire department physically mark vacant properties deemed dangerous to help prevent another tragedy.
The city previously had a program to tag unstable buildings with placards that displayed a large “X,” but it had quietly ended two years earlier. And it would take another decade and the death of three firefighters this January for officials to explore reinstating a similar method in a city that has twice the number of fires in vacant homes than other areas of the country.
The old program, called Code X-ray, placed red signs with white Xs on the outside of blighted properties. However, fire officials said, residents complained at the time that some blocks had an X on every house, creating a visual effect that could taint a neighborhood’s reputation.
In addition to the lapse in labeling, record-keeping under Code X-ray and the broader logging of fires in Baltimore’s vacant properties has been haphazard over the last decade. City legal officials provided largely undated and incomplete records of the tagging program to The Baltimore Sun, and they said the city doesn’t tally fires in vacants. City fire unions say Baltimore has a way to report details of fires’ locations to a national program, which could help track such fires.
Data about fires in vacant properties can help protect firefighters, and in Baltimore, documents a hazard that plagues some of its poorest neighborhoods. A Sun analysis shows the highest concentration of vacant fires over the last five years in Southwest and West Baltimore, specifically in Carrollton Ridge and Sandtown-Winchester.
“There were many things that should have been tracked in the city for many, many years that weren’t being tracked,” Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott said earlier this year when asked about the city’s efforts to track vacant fire data. “We have to make sure we’re doing that now.”
‘It’s a dynamic situation’
Instead of the X placards, firefighters now rely on a computer system to warn them against entering buildings that could be a safety risk. But the system is flawed.
Fire dispatchers who use the Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) system need an exact address to get information about a property, and the entries are not always up to date. That’s because the city housing department’s extensive vacant property records do not automatically feed into the fire department’s system. Instead, information is manually entered, as are observations from firefighters who conduct weekly neighborhood inspections.
When Baltimore Fire Department lieutenants Paul Butrim and Kelsey Sadler and paramedic/firefighter Kenny Lacayo entered a vacant rowhouse on Stricker Street in January that collapsed on them, they didn’t know two fires had damaged the home in 2015 and 2016, said Josh Fannon, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association.
Despite the rowhouse partially collapsing during the 2015 fire, the city housing department did not identify the privately owned house as structurally unsound. And even if information about the collapse had been in the CAD system for 205 S. Stricker St., dispatchers that day sent responding firefighters to several addresses on the block.
Fire commanders have been vague about how often CAD is manually updated with information about hazards. Asked at a news conference in the wake of the Stricker Street fire if the system was regularly updated, Fire Chief Niles Ford said: “It should be.” During a recent City Council meeting, Deputy Fire Chief Charles Svehla offered: “I can’t give you the exact number of times that they do it. It’s a dynamic situation.”
Vacant buildings are considered to be “extremely treacherous to firefighters” by the U.S. Fire Administration, which recommends marking hazardous structures as part of a larger strategy to identify and prevent vacant property fires.
It’s particularly important that firefighters have the full picture before entering vacant buildings in Baltimore, which experiences two times as many fires in vacant homes as other areas across the country, according to a Sun data analysis and a 2018 study from the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association, the most recently available data. More than 12% of Baltimore’s structure fires over a roughly five-year period are in vacant properties, of which there are nearly 15,000. A majority are privately owned.
In response to a Public Information Act request, officials with the city’s law department said Baltimore does not track such fires. City fire union officials pointed out that the city contributes data for the federal fire administration’s National Fire Incident Reporting System, which collects information about the location of fires, among other things. However, the city law department said that system does not track fires in vacancies.
Allison Nicodemus, a State Fire Marshal administrative specialist who oversees the state’s data for the national program, said the Baltimore Fire Department can fill out an optional section for the reporting system about a fire building’s occupancy, but often does not.
The Sun compiled its own list of fires in vacant properties by cross-referencing records of city fires from January 2017 to March 2022, provided by the fire department, against a list of vacant city properties maintained by the city Department of Housing and Community Development. The study by the fire protection association relied on data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System, dated 2011 to 2015, and on an association survey of fire departments. City and the association define of a vacant structure differ slightly; the association’s description encompasses more buildings, such as those even temporarily without people living there.
‘A different outcome might have occurred’
Baltimore’s last major effort to tag vacant properties dangerous to firefighters began in 2010 with Code X-ray. If a building had a red placard bearing a white X, firefighters were not supposed to enter unless there was a credible report of someone trapped inside.
It’s unknown how many placards were placed by the program. The city’s records, provided in response to a Public Information Act request, are largely undated and include numerous repeated addresses. A Sun analysis shows the program was limited to specific neighborhoods such as Govans, Druid Heights, Broadway East, Westport and Brooklyn. Homes were tagged for being “unsafe,” “deteriorated” or “collapsed,” among other reasons.
Individual fire companies were charged with posting the signs, Svehla told City Council members at the recent meeting. Buildings were marked based on firefighters’ “experience” in a neighborhood, rather than using a vacant property list from the Department of Housing and Community Development, he said.
By 2012, the program was dead. Svehla said funding quickly ran dry, and the placards didn’t withstand the elements — they were made of cardboard. But the biggest reason the program ended was blowback from the community, he said.
“Some neighborhoods and some blocks had big Xs on almost every house on the block,” Svehla said. “I believe some council people started receiving some phone calls from people we represent, and we got calls that, ‘We may want to hold up.’”
In another blow to the goal of warning firefighters about dangerous vacants, Baltimore’s fire department lost historical data related to vacant properties during a massive 2019 ransomware attack on the city, Svehla revealed during the council meeting. The loss included data on firefighter injuries related to vacants.
In 2015, in the wake of Lt. James Bethea’s death, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended Baltimore fire personnel resume identifying and marking hazardous buildings. Bethea had fallen through a hole in the floor of a vacant building where firefighters were battling a blaze. He wasn’t found for several hours and died of smoke inhalation in the basement.
“If this hazard had been identified by a building marking program, a different outcome might have occurred,” the NIOSH report said.
Still, it would take another seven years — until after the Stricker Street fire — for the department to consider resuming the tagging of dangerous vacant properties.
New safety measures
There is no national standard for labeling derelict structures, but marking buildings that are unsafe to enter is a tactic used by fire departments across the country. So is identifying hazardous buildings using a CAD system.
Baltimore officials say the city’s CAD system is being updated more frequently now to keep track of which buildings are structurally unsafe. And a working group of officials has been discussing how to better document the condition of vacant properties by merging the housing department’s robust GIS-based location data with the fire department’s computer dispatch system.
Some of the new policies are in action. For instance, dispatchers and responding firefighters now see a red box flagging an address in CAD if a vacant property is unsafe and should not be entered.
Also cropping up are Xs spray-painted by firefighters on vacant buildings, designating that floors are missing, according to a new report from the state occupational safety and health division. While the practice isn’t part of an official program, the report acknowledged some city firefighters have used the technique since the Stricker Street fire.
In a recent City Council meeting, Democratic Councilwoman Danielle McCray questioned fire officials on why it’s taken years for them to collaborate with the housing department on improvements. Ford said the department focused on uploading its data to the CAD system, but he acknowledged the sheer number of vacant properties in Baltimore makes it difficult to know when one becomes structurally unsafe or an occupied house turns vacant.
“The challenge we’re going to continuously have with that kind of data is that our vacant, and even our unsafe vacant structures, are going to ever evolve, almost every month,” Ford said. “Our focus was to initiate putting information in the CAD initially [after the NIOSH report].”
McCray said in an interview that she’s glad to see the departments now talking to each other, but it’s unfortunate it took the death of three firefighters to give officials the push to do so.
Firefighters typically extinguish flames in vacant properties from outside before going inside. But there can be reasons to charge in, even if firefighters know a property is dangerous. In the case of the Stricker Street fire, firefighters were told by dispatchers that someone might be trapped inside.
Also, a culture exists among Baltimore firefighters to “aggressively attack” a fire, Ford told the City Council, by going inside to spray water on intense flames and put the fire out quickly.
“Firefighters are going to pull up to the scene, and if they think that there’s a life hazard there, they’re going to attack the fire aggressively and, hopefully, to be able to try to save a life,” said Chief Roman Clark, a fire department spokesman.
People experiencing homelessness often shelter in vacant properties, an issue firefighters confront regularly in Baltimore, where nearly 40% of the state’s homeless population lives.
“The definition of a vacant is ‘not lawfully occupied,’ which I think is a very good definition, because we see vacants all the time, right? All of us,” Fannon, the union president, said. “At first glance, somebody driving down the street might think, ‘Nobody lives there.’ But we know, in reality, from going in there, that there’s a lot of people that live in ‘vacants.’”
Federal investigators announced in April that the Stricker Street fire was “incendiary,” a classification that includes intentionally set fires and fires accidentally started because of other criminal activity. Sadler, Butrim and Lacayo’s deaths were ruled homicides.
More than 72% of all fires in vacant and abandoned buildings are classified as incendiary or suspicious, according to a 2000 study by the National Fire Protection Association. Baltimore has a relatively high incidence of suspicious fires, according to a 2021 department report that didn’t provide figures.
Vacants: Fewer fires, but more injuries
Undisputed is the fact that vacant properties pose a danger to firefighters. While fires in vacant properties account for just 6% of all structure fires nationwide, they are responsible for 13% of firefighter injuries, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
In Baltimore, data shows fires in vacant properties pose an outsized risk in some of the poorest neighborhoods. Carrollton Ridge, a neighborhood west of downtown and which has the second-highest number of vacant homes in the city, experienced the most fires in those homes over the five-year period the Sun studied. Sandtown-Winchester saw the second-most fires in vacant properties.
In recent years, the hundreds of vacants rehabbed or demolished annually has begun to outpace the number of properties newly vacated, according to the city housing department’s online dashboard. But that still leaves about 15,000 officially unoccupied. On average, vacant building fires in The Sun’s analysis occurred more than four and a half years after a property was registered as vacant.
While it was members of City Council who pressured fire officials to stop marking dangerous buildings a decade ago, members of the current board are receptive to the idea.
Maryland Policy & Politics
For one thing, the city’s stock of vacant properties has since been tagged as such, albeit with different signs, at the council’s request. That happened under a measure it passed in 2020 that requires housing officials to place signs with QR codes on all vacants, regardless of their condition, telling neighbors how to access information about the properties.
McCray said she favors adding markers to designate properties that are too dangerous to enter as long as the signs are placed in a way that doesn’t unfairly stigmatize communities where vacant properties are concentrated.
“We need to prioritize the safety of not just our firefighters, but our community at large,” she said.
Fire officials this spring briefly considered ways to avoid the obvious X signage of the past, exploring options to tag buildings in an inconspicuous way, such as writing a building’s address in reflective paint that’s visible during a nighttime fire.
Ultimately, officials settled on solid red reflective placards with a white outline, fire officials announced during a recent budget hearing. Larger buildings will be marked by larger red placards with a white X. Despite the known wear and tear on the previous placards, the new signs will again be cardboard.
“The old ones weren’t metal,” Ford said. “We’re moving forward with it.”
Baltimore Sun data journalist Steve Earley contributed to this report.