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.

No guarantees

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."

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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