Fire Capt. Darrin P. Danner pointed his flashlight toward the wires dangling in a basement bathroom, smoke still puffing from the walls of the burned-out rowhouse on Bonsal Street, in the far southeastern corner of Baltimore.
It's where the investigator believed the blaze started before it raced along the ceiling to the staircase and up to the main floor. It was 4 a.m., and the sleeping occupants heard the alarm from the smoke detector and escaped unharmed.
"They are lucky to be alive," Danner said of two young men renting the basement in the two-story brick house just off Boston Street. "They got to the steps just before the fire cut off access."
As the winter cold sets in, a time when the number of fires across the city typically increases, the three men and two women living on Bonsal Street are among the survivors — a far more common occurrence in Baltimore now than in years past.
Fire deaths in the city dropped to 17 in 2011, the lowest since the department started keeping track in 1938. The high was in 1984, when 88 people died. Officials attribute the low number to the nearly "universal availability" of smoke detectors, along with stricter building codes, more modern housing, fire-resistant mattresses, cigarettes that go out when dropped and child-proof lighters.
These seemingly minor advances have a cumulative effect, and cities across the country are just now reaping the benefits, experts in fire safety say. Fire deaths are down, in some cases near or at record lows, in Washington, New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
Baltimore Fire Chief James S. Clack said he is pleased with reaching a "historic low" but said that 17 deaths, one of the highest per-capita rates in the country, "is still a tragedy."
Focus on prevention
Baltimore was one of the first cities to give away smoke detectors, starting 20 years ago, and firefighters have handed out a quarter-million of the devices. Now, anyone in the city can call 311 and a firefighter will visit, on the same day, and install a detector with a 10-year lithium battery on every level of a home for free.
Two years ago, Maryland required every new home to have sprinklers installed. Clack said he wants to go even further and require every house in Baltimore undergoing a substantial renovation to have sprinklers, which he said would cost an extra $2 per square foot.
"Smoke alarms alert people to fire," Clack said. "Sprinklers put the fire out. It's like having a firefighter in your home 24-7."
On Thursday night, a sprinkler extinguished a kitchen fire in a third-floor apartment on Loyola Northway in Northwest Baltimore. Officials said firefighters arrived within four minutes of being dispatched and the fire was already out; no one was injured.
John Hall, the director for analysis and research for the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit in Massachusetts, said Maryland's sprinkler law makes it one of the leading states in fire prevention.
He added that cities across the country are starting to benefit from tighter regulations and housing codes, along with fire-resistant products. "A thousand little things add up to big things and save lives," he said. "The number of fire deaths [is] falling in places of all sizes and locations."
Shannon Frattaroli, a professor with the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said Baltimore is the largest U.S. metropolitan jurisdiction to have sprinklers required in all new one- and two-family homes.
"Now is really an exciting time for fire protection," said Frattaroli, who studies fires from a health standpoint. Across the country, Frattaroli said, "we're seeing a tremendous increase in the passage of laws" regarding fire safety.
Baltimore's historically low fire-death total of 17 is tempered when compared to those of other cities. Washington lost six lives to fires in 2011, down from 11 in 2010 and 19 in 2009. In New York City, where 276 people died in fires in 1990, just 64 perished last year.
Baltimore still ranks among the highest in per-capita fire deaths, with a rate last year of 2.69 per 100,000, slightly ahead of Philadelphia with 2.13. Detroit was among the highest with a rate of 5.1, and Boston, New York and Los Angeles were all under 1.
Fire deaths also decreased in Maryland as a whole last year, with 67 fire fatalities reported across the state down from 71 in 2010. Nearly 80 percent of the people who died were in their own homes, and more than half were killed in fires that broke out when most people are typically sleeping. Those are the hours, the Maryland state fire marshal's office says, "when most of us depend on life-saving devices such as working smoke alarms."
Last week's fire on Bonsal Street in Southeast Baltimore was typical — a one-alarm blaze in the middle of the night in a brick rowhouse. It was under control in about 45 minutes.
As firefighters poured water on the last of the burning embers, the five occupants huddled under white blankets in the back of an ambulance, one holding a small black dog named Amy. They spoke only Spanish, and with a relative translating, the owner said only that he heard "pee-pee-pee" from the alarm. He said, "I woke everybody," including the two renters living in the basement.
Danner, the fire investigator, traced burn patterns on the walls to the small basement bathroom, which was filled with 3 inches of thick, black water. There he found what appeared to a makeshift switch with wires outside the wall, "instead of inside where they're supposed to be."
But Danner said he believes the fire started in the wiring above the ceiling fan, which might have overheated. Other wiring, he said, "appeared to be hooked up the way it was supposed to be."
While the number of fire fatalities has decreased, the number of patients treated at hospitals may be increasing. City fire officials had no statistics on the numbers of people who survive, but the burn center at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center is reporting a surge of patients from fires.
"We have never been so busy," said the director, Dr. Stephen Milner, saying he's adding staff to the unit, which serves as a regional trauma center for Maryland and five other states. He said the number of people treated has doubled from 250 to 500 over the past five years.
"It seems like we've seen quite a lot of patients from house fires," he said. Most patients burned over half their bodies go on to lead a "good quality life," whereas a few decades ago those same people had "little chance of surviving," he said.
Busiest in the nation
The number of fire deaths in Baltimore has varied significantly over the years. For example, 47 people died in 1965, a number that jumped to 84 in 1966 and then dropped to 33 the following year. In 1984, the city's deadliest year for fires, 19 people died in four fires, two of which occurred in less than 24 hours. Nine of the victims were children, and six died in an arson fire above a strip club on The Block.
While deaths have decreased, Baltimore firefighters remain among the busiest in the nation — the Steadman station near Camden Yards had more runs in 2010 than any other station in country, rolling out emergency vehicles 60 times a day. The department had 270,000 runs last year, about 100,000 more than Boston, Detroit and Washington.
Baltimore fire officials say the city is challenging because of its aging, 19th-century housing stock, with connected rowhouses and common spaces running underneath the flat roofs. Such areas, called cocklofts, can allow a fire to quickly spread across an entire city block.
Other troublesome factors are the high crime rate, thousands of vacant shells and vast swaths of poverty.
Clack and other firefighters point to the city's impoverished neighborhoods as a prime reason the city has so many fires — 3,544 last year, down from 4,695 in 2006.
Boston, by comparison, had 4,111 fires last year but only one death, and zero deaths in 2010.
Boston, said Baltimore's fire chief, "is a different social dynamic." It has fewer people living in poverty and spends more per capita on fire services than Baltimore. Firefighters in Baltimore encounter people living in squalid rental homes without electricity, with space heaters plugged in to their neighbors' outlets using extension cords draped out of windows.
"Poverty makes you focus on different things," Clack said. "You're focused on where you're going to get food to eat, having a place to live where you don't get rained on, how to keep warm. If you're not sure where you're going to get your next meal, the fact that your smoke alarm doesn't have a battery is not high on your list."
Baltimore Fire Marshal Raymond C. O'Brocki said causes of fire include frayed extension cords — people forget they have a limited life span — and overloaded power strips, especially in older houses that haven't been renovated.
"Who in the 1800s anticipated a flat-screen TV in every room, and a phone charger in every outlet?" O'Brocki said.
The city's stock of vacant housing also contributes to fatalities. A study last year by the Bloomberg School of Public Health found that the risk of fire increases 10 percent for people living next to a vacant rowhouse. "We lose a lot of people in vacant buildings or near vacant buildings," Clack said.
Budget problems may also play a part. Fire companies are closed on a rotating basis every day, prompting the firefighters union to issue nearly daily warnings that residents are in peril. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has cut the closures from three to two a day.
Fire commanders note that the number of deaths has decreased even as the size of the department has shrunk by the hundreds from when the city lost 88 lives in 1984 — to 1,350 firefighters and 250 paramedics today. The city's population has also fallen during that time, from about 767,000 to 631,000.
And City Hall officials say more budget cuts might be coming. Clack warned in October that shaving 5 percent from the Fire Department's spending would mean permanently closing five of the city's 56 firehouses. While careful not to say that the rotating closures cost lives, Clack said the practice "is directly related to our ability to respond quickly."
He said firefighters meet the national response time standard — five minutes from dispatch for the first responding emergency vehicle, and eight minutes for an "effective firefighting force" — about 85 percent of the time. The chief said he'd like it to be at least 90 percent.
Rick Hoffman, president of the city firefighters union, which has been critical of closures, said, "We don't feel we can protect the people of Baltimore as well as we used to." He warned that the department is operating at "bare bones" levels, but at the same time he credited the smoke detector program.
"I like the fact that we aren't carrying more people out in body bags," Hoffman said.
Still, only two of the 17 people who died in Baltimore last year were in homes without working smoke detectors. They were a man and a woman living on the third floor of a rowhouse without electricity on South Fulton Avenue that went up in flames in November when a candle tipped over.
Smoke detectors are no guarantee of safety, which is why Clack wants even stricter sprinkler laws. A detector sounded when fire broke out in a house on Mohawk Avenue in Northwest Baltimore in September, but the ailing elderly man and his wife could not escape. They were delayed by heavy smoke, security bars and grates over their doors and windows, and the man's attempt to rescue his wife.
The couple who died — Donald E.L. Patterson Sr. and Jennye Patterson — were well-known civil rights activists and educators. Donald Patterson died while talking to a 911 operator, his final gasps captured on tape.
"The fire is raging," Patterson shouted into the phone while trapped on the third floor. Several minutes of silence were followed by muffled screams, a dispatcher's voice — "He might be stuck in there, they can't get to him?" — and then a haunting silence.
Fire officials implore residents to get detectors, have their houses routinely inspected and have an escape plan. The state fire marshal, in a statement last week noting the decline in deaths, said that "every Marylander needs to exercise personal responsibility to protect themselves and their families."
Baltimore Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright echoed that sentiment. "We can set everything up," he said. "We can give people a smoke detector, give them batteries and install them where they need to be installed. But the people themselves have to make fire safety a priority."