When a Baltimore fire lieutenant fell through the floor of an abandoned rowhouse in 2014 and died of smoke inhalation, a federal occupational safety agency recommended the fire department physically mark vacant properties deemed dangerous to help prevent another tragedy.
The city previously had a program to tag unstable buildings with placards that displayed a large “X,” but it had quietly ended two years earlier. And it would take another decade and the death of three firefighters this January for officials to explore reinstating a similar method in a city that has twice the number of fires in vacant homes than other areas of the country.
The old program, called Code X-ray, placed red signs with white Xs on the outside of blighted properties. However, fire officials said, residents complained at the time that some blocks had an X on every house, creating a visual effect that could taint a neighborhood’s reputation.
In addition to the lapse in labeling, record-keeping under Code X-ray and the broader logging of fires in Baltimore’s vacant properties has been haphazard over the last decade. City legal officials provided largely undated and incomplete records of the tagging program to The Baltimore Sun, and they said the city doesn’t tally fires in vacants. City fire unions say Baltimore has a way to report details of fires’ locations to a national program, which could help track such fires.