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New city bill would ban firefighters from entering unoccupied burning vacant buildings

Baltimore Heritage/Flickr
Baltimore Heritage/Flickr
Baltimore City Fire Department personnel respond to a 2016 fire at Public School 103 in the Upton neighborhood. On Tuesday, Councilwoman Danielle McCray introduced legislation to change how BCFD responds to fires at vacant buildings.

City Councilwoman Danielle McCray has introduced a bill to ban firefighters from entering unoccupied burning vacant buildings, following the deaths of three on-duty firefighters who were responding to a fire at a vacant home last month.

The Firefighter Safety Act would create rules for fighting fires at vacant structures, including one that would ban Baltimore City Fire Department personnel from entering a burning vacant or abandoned building unless there is a person in the building, fire has consumed less than a quarter of the building and “structural and hazardous conditions permit a safe entry.”

Lt. Paul Butrim, Lt. Kelsey Sadler and firefighter Kenny Lacayo died after the burning vacant home they were in partially collapsed. There was no one inside the home in need of rescue; Fire Chief Niles Ford has said they may have gone inside after weighing the risk of the blaze spreading to the occupied home next door.

“They made the determination they could control the fire and put it out,” he told the Baltimore Sun last month. “It’s up to those individuals on the scene to see the circumstances they have, and they did.”

The Firefighter Safety Act would also require BCFD to create policies that ban personnel from entering a collapsed structure unless they have the appropriate training and equipment and an individual’s life is in immediate danger.

Another mandatory policy would prevent personnel from driving more than 15 miles per hour over the posted speed limit when responding to an emergency.

McCray said the bill was based on recommendations from the National Fire Protection Association and the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

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

Her bill also would require all city firefighters to be equipped with body cameras – portable audio and video recording devices – while responding to blazes, as well as create a program to mark unsafe buildings.

Should the council and Mayor Brandon Scott approve the bill, it will go into effect 180 days after enactment.

BCFD spokeswoman Blair Adams said the council did not consult Chief Ford on the legislation.

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

Battalion Chief Josh Fannon, the president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 964, said his union chapter was not consulted either.

He said he was not aware of any fire departments that use body cameras, which have been increasingly used by police officers in recent years. Fannon said that the gear that firefighters don to combat a blaze varies greatly from law enforcement uniforms.

“I don’t believe there’s any type of body camera that would make sense for fire suppression,” he said. “Body cameras are not the modern equipment we need to transform into a more modern fire suppression operation. Hopefully this allows us to have a conversation about the other things we need.”

Fannon added that he’s glad the city council is taking an interest in firefighter safety and survival issues and that he looks forward to collaboratively finding solutions.

Rich Langford, president of the Baltimore Firefighters Local 734, said he’s looking forward to working with the council on portions of the bill’s language that could be “troublesome for firefighters and the residents of Baltimore,” such as the 25% requirement.

“Think of a two-story rowhome – 25% is the living room,” he said.

“I hope this bill forces the department to sit down with some of the unions and heal and move forward,” Langford added.

McCray and fellow sponsor Odette Ramos also called for several hearings detailing fire department practices, including a performance review for Chief Ford and a hearing on the effects of PTSD on first responders.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.