The Fells Point Warning
by Ben Yelin, CHHS Research Assistant
On June 11, 2012, a five-alarm fire struck a vacant warehouse in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore. Luckily, the building was unoccupied, and there were no fatalities, though one firefighter was injured. To get the fire under control, Baltimore City had to call in fire companies from surrounding counties. The city’s firefighters’ union says that should be a wake-up call for city officials, who in recent years have enacted major budget cuts that have forced rotating, and now permanent, closures of fire companies. The reality of budget cuts reinforces the need for cities to refine their emergency planning to account for having fewer resources available.
Fire companies from Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County and Harford County were called in to help fight the five-alarm fire. As a result, union officials have raised concerns about Baltimore’s cutting of essential services. Beginning in 2004, Baltimore City began conducting rotating closures of fire companies to battle growing budget deficits. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s budget plan for this coming fiscal year calls for Truck 10, Truck 15, and Squad 11, three of the city’s busiest fire companies, to be closed on July 1st. In a vote June 22, the City Council approved that plan. Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright has insisted that these closures will not affect services or response times. Nevertheless, the firefighters’ union and watchdog groups believe there remains a risk that Baltimore City will be underserved during a major emergency. The president of Firefighters Local 734 said the fact that other county departments had to be summoned during the Fells Point fire shows how thin the department is stretched right now.
According to an article in the “The Baltimore Brew,” a high-ranking Baltimore City Fire Department official claimed that during the Fells Point fire, there were “only like 15 units to respond across the city” if another incident occurred at the same time. In fact, an off-duty member of the BCFD tweeted during the event that only 8 engines and 5 trucks were covering the entire city.
During these difficult economic times, cities have been forced to make cuts across the board, including to emergency services. Federal grant assistance for fire departments and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) organizations has decreased by over $300 million over the past three years. The imperative to refine emergency plans is especially important, because in a mass casualty event, it may not be possible for officials from surrounding jurisdictions to assist in an emergency response as they struggle to deal with their own emergencies.
Other major U.S. cities’ response to emergency services budget cuts may offer some solutions for Baltimore. Budget cuts in Los Angeles forced city agencies, in the words of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, “to do more with less.” Last year, Los Angeles developed a plan that shifted firefighters and ambulances to higher demand areas.
Other cities have taken similarly innovative steps to stretch their resources further. In many jurisdictions, between 50 and 80 percent of fire and rescue service calls are for medical emergencies instead of fire emergencies. Recognizing that non-life threatening medical situations can tie up emergency services, the Fargo, ND fire department now only sends fire trucks if there is “bleeding, breathing complications or trauma.” One ambulance will be sent to those non-life threatening calls. There are potential pitfalls with this approach, as it could expose localities to greater legal liability. Ideally, fire departments stand ready to respond with a mass of resources to large scale emergencies, but responding to fewer calls overall may foster the misperception that firefighting companies are sitting idle, leading to increased political pressure to close stations or lay off personnel.