Hazmat Response In Baltimore City

It isn't often that I get the opportunity to write about an organization that I have the pleasure to work with on a regular basis as fire marshal and hazmat team member at the University of Maryland Baltimore. Baltimore City Hazmat Team personnel and firefighters provide our campus with excellent service and we have a very good working relationship between our two organizations.

Organized fire protection in the City of Baltimore began with the formation of the Mechanical Fire Company in 1763. Members of the company were all volunteers. Initially, the company was little more than an organized bucket brigade with ladders and other miscellaneous equipment. In 1769, the fire company purchased its first apparatus, built in Holland and made available from a ship's captain who had the "engine" on his ship; it was nicknamed the "Dutchman." The hand engine was equipped with two pumps and was drawn with ropes by firefighters.

The Mechanical Fire Company was the sole firefighting organization in the city until 1782, when the Union Fire Company was organized. Its first apparatus, also imported from Europe, was similar to the "Dutchman" and nicknamed "Tick-Tack." Additional units formed over the next several years included the Friendship, Deptford, Mercantile and Liberty fire companies. The volunteer companies in the city were organized into the Baltimore United Fire Department in 1834. The career Baltimore City Fire Department was formed in 1858 with 22 fire companies.

On Feb. 7-8, 1904, the Baltimore City Fire Department faced the most difficult fire in the city's history. Known as the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, it originated in the basement of a storage facility and was quickly spread by high winds complicated by the lack of standard hose couplings. Mutual aid fire companies could not hook up to Baltimore City hydrants or hoselines because their hose threads did not match. Firefighters from 72 fire companies fought the blaze; 38 of the companies responded from New York, Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Chester, PA, Wilmington, DE, Washington, DC, and other locales. Over 1,200 firefighters and 200 National Guardsmen fought the fire for 36 hours before it was brought under control. The fire destroyed 1,526 buildings spanning 70 city blocks, causing over $150 million in damage.

Today's Baltimore City Fire Department is led by Fire Chief Jim Clack, who arrived in the city in April 2008 from Minneapolis, MN, where he rose through the ranks to become chief in February 2007. Clack is the first fire chief in Baltimore from outside the department. The department operates with over 1,700 uniformed personnel and 69 civilians from 41 fire stations. Each fire station is identified by the engine company stationed there, except for Station 15, which houses Truck 15 and is the lone remaining truck-only firehouse in the city. There are 37 engine companies, 18 truck companies, 22 medic units, four engines that are identified as squads, Hazmat 1, the Technical Decontamination Unit, a dive rescue team, a collapse team, high-angle rescue team, two mobile air cascade units, one fire boat and one fire/rescue boat in active service.

Baltimore's decontamination unit is one of five almost identical units in the metropolitan area purchased with federal grant money through a grant applied for by the Baltimore City Fire Department. Additional units are in Baltimore County, Howard County, Harford County and Carroll County. Fire Boat 1, commissioned the John R. Frazier (named in honor of the bureau commander who was instrumental in obtaining funding for the Marine Division during his tenure with the fire department) in August 2007 is the first new steel-hull boat purchased by the department in 47 years. Fire/Rescue Boat 1, the department's other first-line marine unit, is a 30-foot/1,500-gpm boat commissioned in December 2003. The department also has two reserve boats in its fleet. The special teams, including the hazmat team, are under the Special Operations Command. The department provides fire, rescue, EMS and special services to a population of over 636,000 in an area of 81 square miles. It responds to over 235,000 alarms per year.

The Baltimore City Fire Department's Hazardous Materials Team was formed in 1985 under the direction of now-retired Battalion Chief C.B. "Buzz" Melton as a result of newly passed federal legislation requiring specialized operations and training for hazardous materials response. Brooklyn Station 35/Truck 21 was the original home of the hazmat unit. It was relocated to the downtown "Super House," Steadman Station in 2001 with Battalion Chief 6. Also at Steadman are Engine 23, Truck 2, Rescue 1, the Technical Decontamination Unit, dive rescue unit, the collapse unit, Airflex 1, EMS 2 and Medic 1. Approximately 350 trained hazmat technicians work four shifts. The hazmat team is not dedicated and has one driver assigned to the unit per shift. Acting Lieutenant James E. ("Slim") Stanley is the Hazardous Materials Team coordinator. All personnel at Steadman Station are hazardous materials technicians and Engine 23, Truck 2 and Rescue 1 respond with Hazmat 1 as needed depending on the type of alarm received. Personnel at Engine 35, Truck 21 and the four squads are also hazmat technicians and available to assist with hazmat calls.

Hazmat 1 responds to an average of 400 hazmat incidents each year. Squads, truck companies and other first-due engines respond to an average of 2,500 incidents each year involving fuel spills, gas leaks, odor investigations and carbon monoxide alarms. Absorbent materials are carried on all apparatus and first-due companies can handle fuel spills up to 50 gallons, but have the option to call in Hazmat 1 anytime they need additional resources. If a spill enters the sewer system, Hazmat 1 is called automatically. Truck companies and squads carry five-gas meters and photo ionization detectors (PIDs). All companies carry radiation meters and all firefighters are trained to a minimum of the operations level.

Anne Arundel County and Baltimore County fire departments work with Baltimore City on a regular basis. The South Baltimore Industrial Mutual Aid Plan (SBIMAP) consists of 80 member organizations, 60% private and 40% public, dedicated to assisting one another during emergencies. The organization received a Partnership award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1998 for its innovative emergency program.

Hazmat 1 is a 2006 Seagrave rescue body with an interior walk-through compartment area and command center. The Technical Decontamination Unit is a 2005 Pierce. Hazmat team members are equipped with Draeger self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) with one-hour bottles, along with Draeger powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) and cartridge respirators for respiratory protection. Personal protective equipment (PPE) for body protection is provided with Kapler and DuPont suits for Level A entry and Kapler encapsulated and un-encapsulated suits for Level B entry. Motorola radios with earpieces and mikes built into the SCBA facepieces are used for in-suit communications.

Hazmat personnel receive the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute (MFRI) 56-hour hazmat technician course and a 40-hour weapons of mass destruction (WMD) course. Some are sent for additional training at the TTCI Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, CO, Radiation School at the Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas, WMD training at the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, AL, and incident command courses at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD.

Highway transportation routes in the area where hazardous materials are shipped on a regular basis include Interstates 70, 83, 95, 97, 395, 695 and 795. Baltimore is situated on the Patapsco River, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay. Hazardous materials in intermodal containers are shipped to and from the city through the Port of Baltimore. Colonial Pipeline Co. has a pipeline system that terminates in the Curtis Bay area in the southeast side of the city where there is a major concentration of petroleum and chemical facilities. Some of the chemicals found in the industrial areas include uranium-hexafluoride, anhydrous ammonia, chlorine, petroleum products and ethanol produced in the city. Rail lines include those used by CSX and Norfolk Southern.

The CSX line, which runs below Howard Street, was the site of a major hazmat spill and fire on July 18, 2001, when the fire department and hazmat team faced one of their most challenging hazmat/fire incidents. At 3:08 P.M., 11 cars of a 60-car CSX train derailed in the 1.7-mile Howard Street Tunnel. Four of eight tank cars that contained hazardous materials derailed. The derailed tank cars contained tripropylene, a flammable liquid, hydrochloric acid and di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, a plasticizer and environmentally hazardous substance. The leaking tripropylene caught fire and burned along with other combustible cargo in other railcars.

Civil defense sirens sounded through the city, highways into Baltimore were closed along with boat traffic in the Inner Harbor. Public Works Department representatives indicated that this was the first time the sirens had been used other than during drills or tests. Shelter-in-place orders were issued for downtown buildings. Traffic was gridlocked on city streets, people waited for buses that could not get to them, light-rail service was restricted because of the proximity to the incident scene and the Metro subway was closed for a time to make sure smoke had not entered the tubes. The second game of an Orioles double-header was canceled, downtown stores were closed and night classes at the University of Baltimore were canceled. Five alarms of fire equipment and approximately 125 firefighters responded to the incident, which lasted until July 23.

Firefighters and hazmat personnel had a difficult time getting to the site of the derailment because of the leaking chemicals, the thick black smoke and the fact that the derailment occurred about three-quarters of a mile into the tunnel. The situation was further complicated when a 40-inch water main broke in Howard Street above the fire. Twenty-two people were injured, including two firefighters who experienced chest pains. Ironically, it was scheduled to be Firefighter Appreciation Day 2001 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a few hundred feet from the opening to the tunnel.

For additional information, contact Acting Lieutenant James E. ("Slim") Stanley at 443-984-1738 or james.stanley@BC.gov (James told be that when calling him, ask for "Slim" or you may be told there is no James Stanley there!)

ROBERT BURKE, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland Baltimore. He is a Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFSP), Fire Inspector II, Fire Inspector III, Fire Investigator and Hazardous Materials Specialist, and has served on state and county hazardous materials response teams. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and the Community College of Baltimore, Catonsville Campus, and the author of the textbooks Hazardous Materials Chemistry for Emergency Responders and Counter-Terrorism for Emergency Responders. He can be contacted at robert.burke@att.net.