The Baltimore County Fire Department’s response to a massive fire last summer at an auto parts store lacked cohesive communication and effective leadership and failed to follow safety procedures, putting firefighters in harm’s way, according to a review by The Baltimore Sun of the department’s incident report, an anonymous complaint to authorities that resulted in a state investigation, and audio from the county’s dispatch center.
The first calls about the fire at Advance Auto Parts in Reisterstown came in at 9:36 p.m. on July 18. Twenty minutes after first responders arrived, a firefighter radioed: “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! I’m stuck in a storeroom. The ceiling’s fallen on me.”
A second firefighter went into the building to rescue him, but he lacked essential rescue equipment like an oxygen mask, according to the report released by Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH). Nine minutes later, the rescuer radioed to his colleagues that he, too, was lost, saying, “You’re going to have to send someone in to find us,”
A third responder radioed at 10:14 p.m. that he had found the pair and led them out of the building. The second rescuer had to hook the injured firefighter, now disoriented, to his own oxygen mask via a “buddy breathing system.”
The county told the state in a Jan. 31 letter that it held additional training in the months after the fire and convened an internal panel to investigate the department’s response. An after-action report is pending, which “will provide detailed insights, actionable steps to rectify the identified issues, and additional training initiatives,” according to fire department spokesperson Lt. Travis Francis.
The MOSH report characterized the Reisterstown incident as a near-miss that exposed responders to serious injury and/or death. The report came in response to the anonymous complaint by a firefighter to state Labor Secretary Portia Wu.
On the night of the fire, dispatchers notified the area battalion chief at 9:36 p.m. about a fire in the two-story building at Reisterstown and Cherry Hill roads. However, they said there were “several” EMS calls to address before they could alert fire units, according to audio logs, which they did at 9:44 p.m.
The “significant delay” between when the first calls came in and when dispatch sent units out gave the fire “an opportunity to grow because it went unchecked,” said John Sibiga, the president of the county firefighters’ union. Dispatchers typically send out units between one or two minutes after the first calls are received, he said.
Francis said 911 calls are prioritized by severity, and “dispatched as quickly as possible.”
However, an engine crew and medic unit from the fire station in Reisterstown responded without being dispatched and arrived at the store around 9:40 p.m. They spent seven minutes fighting the fire by themselves.
The battalion chief arrived and assumed control at 9:50 p.m., but didn’t get a briefing from firefighters who were already there, creating “confusion on the ground” about who was in charge and the status of the rapidly growing fire, according to audio and the MOSH complaint.
“The function of a battalion chief is to be calling the shots on an incident,” said retired county Division Chief Jonathan Hart. “Battalion chiefs being at a scene ensure that firefighters are setting up hoses where they’re supposed to be, following policies, and ensuring operational discipline.”
The battalion chief radioed 10 minutes later, at 10 p.m., to say he had designated a fire marshal as safety officer, the person in charge of ensuring firefighters follow procedures that don’t put them at risk of injury or death. The county does not have stand-alone safety officers; instead, the command officer often designates a safety officer on a scene. However, Hart said, this sacrifices manpower because it takes the officer away from supervising firefighters on their crew.
The situation appeared to worsen at 10:07 p.m., as a higher-ranking deputy officer took over from the battalion chief, then issued an order for everyone to evacuate the building, unaware of the mayday alert or ongoing rescue effort, according to the complain to MOSH.
“Per policy, this development should have resulted in a second mayday, and deployment of a second rescue team,” the complaint read. Instead, the rescuing officer was “left to spend several minutes in the building with an injured firefighter, while low on air and without the benefit of a [rescue kit] bag or a coordinated response from the incident commander,” risking multiple fatalities.
Three battalion chiefs per shift oversee the county’s 25 career stations and 29 volunteer stations. Baltimore City has six, and began assigning them assistants after a 2022 fire that claimed three firefighters’ lives.
Baltimore County previously had six battalion chiefs per shift, but scaled back to three beginning in the 1990s and 2000s, Francis said. Two reports from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released after the on-duty deaths of volunteer firefighters Mark Falkenhan in 2011 and Gene Kirchner in 2013 recommended adding more battalion chiefs.
“Baltimore County Fire Department regularly evaluates resources to ensure the safety and efficiency of our operations and have proposed plans to increase the number of on-duty battalion chiefs,” Francis said. “Our focus remains on providing effective emergency response services while balancing resource allocation across all areas of need.”
In response to the NIOSH reports, the fire department provided portable radios and automatic emergency alarms and acquired remote monitoring software, while increasing code enforcement to ensure fire safety in apartment complexes, according to Francis.
“These initiatives collectively demonstrate the department’s commitment to enhancing operational effectiveness and ensuring the safety of both firefighters and the community,” he said.
Sibiga said the Reisterstown fire response was chaotic, but expected in light of the department’s shortcomings. A 2022 report from an outside consultant retained by Baltimore County said the department “lacks sufficient fiscal, physical, and human resources to accomplish its core mission.”
“I’m hopeful, but I’m also a realist,” Sibiga said. “What are we waiting for?”