Firehouse® Interview: Chief James S. Clack Baltimore City Fire Department

James S. Clack was appointed the 17th fire chief to serve in Baltimore, MD, in March 2008. He is the first fire chief to be appointed from outside the Baltimore City Fire Department (BCFD). Clack spent the first 22 years of his career in Minneapolis...


James S. Clack was appointed the 17th fire chief to serve in Baltimore, MD, in March 2008. He is the first fire chief to be appointed from outside the Baltimore City Fire Department (BCFD). Clack spent the first 22 years of his career in Minneapolis, MN, where he started as a firefighter and retired as fire chief in 2008. He has completed the Executive Fire Officer program at the National Fire Academy. He also holds an associate's degree in general business administration from the University of Minnesota and bachelor's degree in fire administration from Southwest Minnesota State University. He was recently honored among "Outstanding Alumni" by the University of Minnesota, Crookston.

Clack was active in Local 82 of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) while serving as a firefighter and fire captain. Upon promotion to deputy chief in 2008, he helped build an award-winning fire service labor-management committee in Minneapolis. Clack was the unified incident commander for the Interstate 35W bridge collapse over the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis on Aug. 1, 2007. This disaster captured the attention of the international media and reporters from around the world were on site the next day. The response by local fire, EMS and law enforcement agencies has been described as a model of effectiveness by many inside and outside of government.

The interview was conducted by Firehouse® Magazine Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner.

FIREHOUSE: The number of fires involving vacant buildings in Baltimore increased last year to 230 from 131 in the previous year. Is there a reason?

CLACK: There is no clear data yet as to why we are seeing an increase in vacant structure fires. Overall, structure fires are down year over year. We believe that there are more homeless people seeking shelter in our vacant residential structures.

FIREHOUSE: How many vacant buildings are there in the city of Baltimore?

CLACK: According to the housing department, there are 16,000 vacant residential buildings in Baltimore. The city owns over 4,000 of them. If you count other types of occupancy, the number of vacant structures is many thousand more. The highest estimate I have heard is 40,000 total.

FIREHOUSE: Is there a plan to eliminate the vacant buildings?

CLACK: No. The only buildings that are removed are structures that are imminently dangerous to life or in areas where a contractor is undertaking a redevelopment project. Many city blocks contain only one or two occupied homes in a block of 10–12 rowhomes. The structural integrity of each unit depends on its neighbors for support, making it very difficult to remove vacant structures next to an occupied or privately held building.

FIREHOUSE: Can and will the fire department identify hazards and squatters in these vacant buildings?

CLACK: We are starting a program to mark all dangerous buildings in Baltimore according to the adopted fire code. There will be a large X attached to the building at the boarded entrances to the building. We have no program to identify "squatters" in vacant buildings. We know that many vacant structures are used by people who engage in dealing or using illegal drugs.

FIREHOUSE: Can you explain the new program the mayor signed for the addition of sprinklers in new construction?

CLACK: The mayor and city council passed a residential sprinkler requirement in all newly constructed one- and two-family residential structures effective July 1, 2010. On that date, Baltimore became the largest city in the United States with a residential sprinkler requirement in new single-family homes.

FIREHOUSE: How many smoke detectors have the firefighters installed in city residences? Has this program helped?

CLACK: Over the past 20 years, Baltimore City firefighters have installed over 200,000 smoke alarms in Baltimore. Since last year, we have begun using 10-year lithium battery smoke alarms during our home-visit program. Every home gets a 10-year alarm installed by firefighters on all floors free of charge.

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