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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.