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Baltimore City Fire Dept. changing the way it fights fires, union concerned

Posted at 5:16 PM, Nov 02, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-02 17:23:37-04

BALTIMORE — Making split-second decisions is a necessary part of the job when fighting a fire. So if firefighters have to wait for one of their higher-ups to arrive and tell them when it's safe to go inside a building, precious minutes could pass by.

That was the concern from members of the Baltimore City Fire Department after the administration sent out this memo about a new policy.

It says crews are to attack a fire only from the outside, until a battalion chief tells them otherwise. Matthew Coster, president of Baltimore Firefighters IAFF Local 734, wasn't a fan of that directive.

"We have a job to do - save lives and property - and we don't want to be handcuffed by some memo that says we aren't able to do that," Coster said.

That memo was intended only for members of the fire department, but it was made public.

"I've gotten tons of phone calls and everything from the membership that wasn't happy about the memo. So I'm sure somebody did leak the memo," Coster said.

Less than 24 hours later, a revised version was sent out. Firefighters are still supposed to attack fires from the outside, to start. But now, to enter a building, they only have to wait for the go-ahead from the first officer to arrive on the scene.

Coster says this is still a major departure from normal procedure.

"Normal operations for us are an aggressive interior attack. We have to do our searches and put the fire out from the inside. Baltimore is unique when it comes to row homes. If you don't put the fire out in a timely fashion, you could have somebody killed or you could burn a whole block down," Coster said.

The memo says the only time firefighters don't have to follow this rule is if they have a "credible report" of someone trapped inside, and conditions are safe enough for them to go in without getting hurt. That wording was changed from the initial memo, which said firefighters could only deviate from the rule if they had an "actual sighting" of a trapped individual.

Coster worries all of these rules are too much to think about when it's crunch time, and he doesn't want firefighters second-guessing themselves.

But he says the public shouldn't worry - firefighters risk their lives all the time, they'll risk breaking the rules, too, if it means saving a life.

"Our members are dedicated to their job and they will do whatever's possible to save lives no matter what discipline could be around the corner," Coster explained.

Coster does agree changes to make firefighters are necessary, and says the union is working with the fire department on further revisions to the memo. We did reach out to the fire department about this, but have not heard back yet.