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Lia Russell

Baltimore Sun

January 26, 2024

The Baltimore County Fire Department’s response to a three-alarm fire in Reisterstown last summer was hampered by a lack of equipment, uncoordinated leadership and little training, exposing firefighters to potential death or serious injury, according to a report from a state labor safety agency obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

In a report issued Jan. 17, Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) found 11 “serious” violations of the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Act and one “other-than-serious” violation in the county fire department’s response to a fire at an Advanced Auto Parts store on Reisterstown Road in July.

Authorities arrested and held a 19-year-old without bail that week for first-degree arson for allegedly starting the fire.

The report violations, none of which carry a financial penalty, said the responding rescue crew was not equipped with retrieval equipment, despite a MAYDAY alert; firefighters who went into the burning building did not maintain visual or audio contact with each other at all times and did not have full protective gear or breathing masks while trying to find the source of the fire; and firefighters were not given “frequent” training on rescue intervention or how to use thermal imaging cameras, which created “hazardous situations” that exposed them to becoming lost, disoriented, trapped and/or suffering burn injuries.

The first officers on the scene, known as incident commanders, also did not coordinate face-to-face and did not update each other about the status of the fire, causing them to “operate without knowledge of the current situation,” and exposing firefighters to an environment where they could have suffered burn injuries or become “trapped, lost, and/or disoriented.”

Responders did not perform a risk assessment or perform a 360-degree walkaround of the building before allowing firefighters to “self-deploy” and enter the building, which also exposed them to potential injury, the report said.

The least serious charge was issued due to a safety officer not being equipped with a breathing mask when standing outside of the “immediately dangerous life or health atmosphere” with smoke present.

Fire Chief Joanne Rund said the department’s top priority was the safety of first responders and the communities they serve, and that it would work with MOSH to review its safety policies, protocols, and equipment and identify areas for improvement.

“We acknowledge the MOSH citations’ significance and emphasize our unwavering commitment to promptly addressing and rectifying any identified safety issues,” she said. “Our goal is to create a workplace that not only meets but exceeds regulatory standards to ensure the highest level of safety for everyone involved. We aim to proactively address potential hazards and create a safer working environment for our team members.”

A fire department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a question about whether the county had abated the findings as required.

In a statement, County Executive Johnny Olszewski, a Democrat, said his administration also took MOSH’s findings seriously and would support the fire department to address the issues.

“Our brave first responders put their lives on the line each and every day to keep Baltimore County residents safe, and ensuring they have the training and equipment necessary in emergency situations remains of the utmost importance,” he said.

Serious violations are listed as ones where “there is a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result, unless the employer did not know and could not know through the exercise of reasonable diligence, the existence of the violation,” according to MOSH. Other-than-serious violations are ones that pose a risk to job safety and health, but aren’t considered “serious.”

The report was issued in response to an anonymous complaint submitted in August to Labor Secretary Portia Wu that The Sun obtained.

The same month, an internal report from the firefighters’ union sent Olszewski a report charging fire department leadership with creating a toxic work environment that led to “decreased morale, inferior performance, and negative attitudes.”

John Sibiga, the president of the Baltimore County firefighters and paramedics’ union, said the report was “significant” and did not know of MOSH ever doing a review of a fire response before then.

“I’m not necessarily surprised,” he said. According to him, the county has not held “appropriate” rescue intervention training since 2016 or 2017, and has never held a formal training class on thermal imaging cameras.

“Firefighters are adaptable, and used to operating on the fly,” he said. “We’ve been going for so long [without training or equipment] they’ve just gotten used to it.”

Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat and retired Anne Arundel County Fire Department division chief, said he was surprised no fines were issued, but nothing “jumped out at him” in the report.

“From my viewpoint, when no one gets hurt or injured, that’s a good thing because you have a lot of people doing a dangerous job,” he said. “A lot of [the report] is filled with, ‘you did not do this, therefore this could happen.’ Well that’s true, it could have, but I’m sure [the fire department] is going to read it and make the necessary adjustments to correct anything spelled out in the report.”

The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1311 has long sounded the alarm about a lack of adequate staffing, which comes on the heels of a vote of no confidence in top department leadership the union held in 2023.

On Wednesday, Kathleen Benedick, 70, died after being involved in a Catonsville house fire on Tuesday. The nearest fire engine, located at Station 4 in Catonsville, had been closed hours earlier, as part of a countywide effort to save money on overtime, Sibiga said.

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