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Baltimore Fire Cheif resigns after report shows officers missed critical information during massive blaze that killed three firefighters

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Lia Russell

Baltimore Sun

The release of a damning investigative report into a January fire that claimed the lives of three Baltimore firefighters has led to the resignation of Baltimore Fire Chief Niles Ford.

The 182-page report, compiled by a panel assembled by Ford that included emergency officials from Prince George’s County, Howard County, Washington D.C. and Baltimore, looked at the city’s responsibility surrounding the Jan. 25 fire in the 200 block of S. Stricker St. that was one of the deadliest for first responders in the city’s history.

Lt. Paul Butrim, Lt. Kelsey Sadler and EMT/firefighter Kenny Lacayo were killed and another firefighter seriously injured after a vacant home partially collapsed as they attempted to battle a blaze from inside.

The investigation found:

  • the city lacked policies on vacant buildings at the time of the fire and failed to fully implement those proposed more than a decade ago;
  • a battalion chief on scene was overloaded with duties and missed critical information on busy radio channels;
  • and an early assessment of the fire missed key factors, including the building’s lengthy vacancy, damage from a previous fire and exposure to the elements.

“The absence of critical building information to responding units and the lack of a visual cue on the building was detrimental to the outcome of this fire,” the report states.

Mayor Brandon Scott said Friday in an interview with The Baltimore Sun that several items noted in the report have been ongoing problems for the department during Ford’s tenure.

“There’s some stuff that remains which I just can’t accept,” said Scott, who did not elaborate. “This is about us moving forward and turning the page.”

Ford, who has served as fire chief since 2014, resigned effective immediately, city officials said. The chief announced the move to staff midday Friday.

The report also found, among many other things, that a “sense of rivalry and competitive culture” in the city’s fire department is a pervasive problem. The authors stopped short of blaming that culture for the deaths of the three firefighters, but warned of its danger.

“The satisfaction of arriving first to the scene of a fire has a rewarding effect on the members,” the report states. “Currently, many of the personnel have described the competition as reaching a point of distraction from the focus of the important tasks presented at a fire and the importance of good decision making.

“Pride and dedication are the cornerstone of a successful unit; however, it is the responsibility of the unit’s officer to control the competition and rivalry,” the report stated. “The importance of a strong incident assessment and team approach cannot be neglected.”

Members of Engine 14 were the first to arrive at the Stricker Street site in response to a 5:50 a.m. call. Sadler, who was posthumously promoted from acting lieutenant to lieutenant, was in command of the scene until a battalion chief arrived, according to a report from the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health division. She and her crew ran into the house, along with Butrim and two other members of Engine 36. They doused flames on the first floor before the collapse.

The report noted there were signs of a previous fire and structural instability when firefighters arrived at the Stricker Street house. Firefighters used an “interior attack” despite those conditions, the report said.

The investigation found there was no policy in effect at the time of the Stricker Street fire to notify firefighters of buildings that were vacant and unsafe. The report recommended reinstating Code X-Ray, a city program begun in 2010 to mark dangerous vacant buildings with “X” placards. While the program was never formally ended, use of the placards was halted by 2012 amid complaints from residents and community leaders that the signs were tarnishing the reputations of certain communities.

The city restarted the program in October, ahead of the report’s release, placing signs on the first of more than 500 vacant homes that have been identified as unsafe based on the stability of the building’s structure and roof, previous fire damage and signs of a collapse.

The report also recommends the fire department develop a risk management plan that includes a proper “size-up” of a fire scene prior to interior firefighting on all sides of a home. Specific to vacant buildings, the report suggests a standard operating procedure and training.

The investigation found a battalion chief on the scene was overwhelmed by too many responsibilities, compromising the safety of firefighters there. The chief, who was unnamed, told investigators he knew he was missing radio transmissions and was struggling to organize the response.

The report found responding firefighters didn’t use “talk groups” to relieve congestion on the primary radio channel, causing the incident commander to “completely miss or mis-prioritize critical information.”

Investigators recommended following a national fire standard calling for dedicated incident command technicians to assist battalion chiefs.

The investigation is the latest response to the deaths of Butrim, Sadler and Lacayo which led almost immediately to calls for the city to better mark and record the locations of hazardous vacant buildings that present a danger to first responders. The New Southwest/ Mount Clare neighborhood where the fire occurred has the sixth most vacant houses in Baltimore, a city with about 16,000 vacants.

A Baltimore Sun investigation showed vacant homes in Baltimore burn at twice the national rate, but gaps in record keeping have limited what firefighters know before proceeding inside.

The report echoed these concerns, adding that the city’s slapdash approach to labeling fires and inconsistent data collection methods often led to the number of fires being underreported or misclassified, stymying reform efforts.

Ford has served under several administrations but was originally the choice of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. After beginning his career as a dispatcher in Alabama, he served as a paramedic and firefighter. He was deputy chief in Fulton County, Georgia and fire chief of Lincoln, Nebraska before coming to Baltimore.

Ford also served a two-year stint as city manager of Chamblee, Georgia, a town of about 10,000 people. Chamblee City Council issued a preliminary resolution saying its members had lost confidence in Ford and began proceedings to terminate him. Ford resigned.

Scott, then a member of Baltimore City Council, opposed Ford’s hiring in 2014 and questioned why an internal candidate was not selected. The mayor said Friday Ford’s departure has nothing to do with past disagreements.

“This isn’t anything about how many umpteen years ago,” he said. “This is about this moment in the city and how we can move forward as a department in the city.”

Ford was paid $229,000 in fiscal year 2021, the most recently available year in the city’s salary database.

A group of city fire commanders including Assistant Chief Charles Svehla, Assistant Chief Chris Caisse and Assistant Chief Dante Stewart will rotate as acting chief on an interim basis, city officials said.

©2022 Baltimore Sun. Visit baltimoresun.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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