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, 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.

The fire death numbers in Baltimore have been declining since the late 1980s. From a high of over 80 fire deaths in 1988, we are now at historic lows for deaths due to fire. In calendar year 2009, we lost 19 people due to fires, with three of these fire deaths outside structures. So far in 2010, we are at 12 fire deaths as of late October. If the trend holds, we are on track to have the fewest fire deaths on record in Baltimore. The program has been a tremendous success as we move toward our goal of zero fire deaths by 2015.

FIREHOUSE: You recently had two simultaneous four-alarm fires. Assistance was required from four surrounding counties and Washington, DC. Will this help be required into the city in the future because of lack of companies, manpower, etc?

CLACK: Two four-alarm fires going at the same time within a few blocks of each other is extremely rare, even in a big city like Baltimore. We were experiencing very high winds on the evening of those two simultaneous large fires and I was very concerned that we would have the same conflagration problem experienced in Detroit the day before our fires. The mutual aid from Washington, DC, was offered and I accepted as a precautionary measure to stay in front of a very dangerous situation. Baltimore and Washington, DC, have a good working relationship and I very much appreciate the help and support of Chief Dennis Rubin from DC.

Baltimore has a proud history of taking care of our own fires without much mutual aid assistance. As the numbers of fire companies and firefighters have been reduced significantly over the past 50 years, Baltimore is becoming more reliant on mutual aid during extraordinary emergencies. We once had 58 engines and 30 trucks. The BCFD now is made up of 36 engines and 18 trucks.

Personally, I am a big believer in mutual aid as a way for neighbors to share fire and EMS resources when we become busy. We are in the process of streamlining mutual aid calls in the Baltimore region so that we are able to front load incidents more quickly and look to roll out enhanced mutual aid this month. All of the surrounding counties around Baltimore are fully supportive of this program.

FIREHOUSE: Are there any further plans to close companies or "brown out" units (one unit closed and three brownouts per day)?

CLACK: I feel that 36 engines and 18 trucks is the correct deployment model for Baltimore. At that staffing level, we can just meet NFPA 1710 (National Fire Protection Association 1710: Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments) response-time standards for structure fires. We did close one downtown truck company on July 1, 2009, and put two new medic units in service the same day. There was no net decrease in daily staffing. Compared to other cities, we are doing fairly well maintaining a high level of service during the worst economy since the Great Depression.

Our authorized daily staffing remains at just under 300 and I am comfortable at that level. Unfortunately, the economy has made it very difficult for me to meet a reduced budget and keep everything in service every day. We started with six rotating closures (brownouts) last summer and are now down to just three per day. My goal is to get down to one rotating closure by July 1, 2011, which is the start of our new fiscal year.

FIREHOUSE: Are there any other fire safety education or fire safety plans you have added to reach the citizens of Baltimore?

CLACK: Our primary public education effort is our home-visit program. Johns Hopkins (University) is partnering with us to find new ways to make that program even more effective. We are engaged in a pilot project with them to increase the percentage of homes we get into when we knock on front doors. Early results indicate that we will be able to get into 50% more homes using new strategies and tools. The key is getting through that front door.

In addition to installing smoke alarms, we are looking around the home for other hazards. This total-risk-reduction effort even includes the ABCs of infant sleeping arrangements in the home — "Alone on their Back and in a Crib." Once we get into the home, these risk-reduction programs will allow us to not only reduce fire deaths, but also get at other causes of injuries and fatalities not related to fire.

This is the future of the fire service, and the members of the BCFD are proud to be on the "cutting edge" when it comes to community risk reduction. Our motto "Pride Protecting People" is lived out every day here in Baltimore.