Chief Concerns Baltimore City: "A Smoke Alarm Installed Within Two Hours"

The Baltimore City, MD, Fire Department’s neighborhood smoke alarm canvassing program began passively in the 1970s after the release of America Burning, a landmark document that emphasized, among other things, the importance of public fire safety education and smoke alarms. Initially, firefighters went door to door asking residents whether they had working smoke alarms in their homes. The firefighters did not test or install alarms; they simply tried to raise awareness. There was no organization, no record keeping or coordination of the canvassing process.

In 1982, the City Council passed Bill 82-761, mandating that “every one-, two- or three-family residential dwelling install and maintain at least one smoke detector.” The Baltimore City Fire Department responded by offering smoke alarms for sale at cost, $6.

It was not until 1992 when Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. took command that the fire department started installing free smoke alarms for residents. The alarms were paid for through donations and grants, and the Fire Marshal’s Office held annual fundraisers to generate funds. The first central reporting system was created, with the fire department keeping paper receipts of dwellings where smoke alarms were installed. Records were kept solely to manage inventory and account for the donated alarms.

In the early 2000s, Fire Marshal Theodore Saunders had a computer database created to track the “Home Visits Program.” The database could tell the fire department where it had been, but not where it needed to go. There was no central coordination of coverage, but the raw numbers of home visits were being tracked by the mayor’s new Citi-Stat program. Under Citi-Stat, city agencies meet biweekly with the Mayor’s Office to set goals, provide statistics and discuss ways of improving services. Fire companies were held accountable for a certain number of home visits every two weeks, but given no guidance as to where or how to conduct the inspections.

Smoke alarms in budget

In 2009, Chief James Clack was the first fire chief to fund the purchase of smoke alarms as a line item in the fire department budget. Donations and grants were insufficient to pay for new 10-year lithium battery alarms equipped with a “hush” feature that silences an alarm for three to five minutes if it is accidentally activated when food is being cooked. We believed this feature would limit the number of smoke alarms taken down or from which batteries were removed and not replaced in response to accidental activations. The switch to the longer-lasting batteries was intended to engineer a solution to the number of fire deaths occurring in homes with smoke alarms that had no batteries or dead batteries. In addition to the change in technology, the manner in which home visits were conducted changed. The decision of where canvassing efforts were to occur was taken from individual fire companies and left to the battalion chief to conduct on a regional level.

One big inefficiency discovered in the neighborhood canvassing model was the “entry rate.” The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted a comprehensive study of our smoke alarm program. A finding that was most startling was the high number of dwellings we do not enter to install or test smoke alarms. Someone answered the door at only 33% of the homes we visited, and those who came to the door let us in only 66% of the time. We tried moving the day of the week and time of day for the visits with little to no improvement.

Another challenge was documenting and recording smoke alarm installations. The Hopkins study revealed defects in data collection and storage. Fire companies were misreporting or under-reporting smoke alarm data, but we had no money for a professionally made database. We needed a plan to increase the efficiency of the program while accurately recording its accomplishments.

First hotline procedures

The program’s first telephone hot line was started in the mid-1990s. It was a simple voicemail box that did not ring to anyone in particular. Messages were retrieved daily, usually in the morning by Fire Marshal’s Office personnel. A member who emptied the mailbox would record the information on request forms and then send those requests via departmental mail to the closest firehouse. The fire company would execute the installation after contacting the occupant.

There were limitations to this system. The mailbox held only 40 messages, so that when it became full (a frequent occurrence after a fire death or large fire) no one could leave a request until it was emptied. Another limitation was that those who retrieved the requests worked regular office hours. If a request was left after 5 P.M. on a Friday, it wasn’t retrieved until 8 A.M. Monday or Tuesday, if it were a holiday weekend. Sometimes, it took a week to get requests to the members responsible for installations. Companies then had the challenge of contacting the people making the requests (many did not leave phone numbers) and consequently made fruitless visits to addresses in order to install smoke alarms. The lag time was staggering and sometimes no alarms were installed.

The idea

While the original hotline was good “for its time,” surely technological advances since the mid-1990s could help us. The impetus for improving the program was the reception of a $100,000 grant for 10-year lithium battery smoke alarms from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This was in addition to a $50,000 grant from an anonymous donor.

Initially, during a brain-storming session, someone suggested having citizens call the 911 system, but that was quickly dismissed. That “dismissed suggestion,” however, led us to something that was sitting there all along – 311.

Baltimore was the first municipality in the nation to implement a 311 number, in 1996. Soon, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the use of the number nationwide. Originally, Baltimore’s 311 system was used only for non-emergency police matters. In 2001, Mayor Martin O’Malley launched the current One Call Center, expanding 311’s use to all city services. Now, citizens can call 311 to have a pothole filled, a streetlight lamp replaced, to report a traffic signal that is not working or for almost any other complaint a citizen can make to local government.

For our program, a citizen calls 311 between 7 A.M. and 7 P.M. to request a smoke alarm. The 311 operator asks the citizen a few questions. The first question asked is, “Are you or another adult going to be home for the next two hours?” If the answer is no, the person is asked to call back when he or she has two hours available. If the answer is “yes,” the operator moves on to substantive questions yielding information helpful to the installers. The caller is left with a “Service Request” (SR) number that can be tracked by the citizen on any computer. This applies mainly to citizen complaints that cannot be completed in two hours.

The 311 center sends an email to Fire Communications, which then dispatches the closest company non-emergency response to complete the installation. Once the install is complete, the fire officer calls Fire Communications to report that the install is complete, how many alarms were installed and on what levels. The dispatcher at Fire Communications then closes out the SR.

There is a “circuit-breaker” provision built in. If the fire department is experiencing an unusual amount of emergency services – i.e. a multiple-alarm fire or natural disaster – the program will be temporarily halted until the demand on the system lessens. Since its inception, we “tripped” that circuit breaker only once, in the aftermath of a rare 5.0 earthquake.

To train firefighters on the program, we drafted a new standard operating procedure (SOP), created a 45-minute training module that we delivered in person at battalion training and a firefighter’s guidebook to public education called Fighting Fire With Facts (modeled after the Mississippi State Fire Marshal’s similar guidebook) and even shot a 50-minute video detailing proper and improper methods for performing home visits and installing smoke alarms. Our partners at Johns Hopkins helped us in the development of our training materials.

The early results

In the 24-hour period following the press conference announcing the new program, the 311 system experienced an avalanche of requests, and 311 operators handled every request. Baltimore City firefighters installed nearly 500 smoke alarms the first day and approximately 1,000 the first week. Obviously, the 311 system could not maintain that level of enthusiasm, but indications are that it will more than exceed the old hotline. The 311 system averages about 20 requests a day; the old hotline averaged three a day.

The entry rate is 98%, with the 2% failure rate usually attributable to one person calling on behalf of another and not letting the other person know; i.e., an adult requesting a smoke alarm for an elderly parent. There is a vast improvement in documentation and reporting. The 311 database is now our database for retrieving smoke alarm installs data. It is user-friendly, professionally maintained and highly accurate.

The early results look promising, but there is still the main challenge of “getting the word out.” Grants are great for providing resources to help us serve the public, but not many grants allow money for promotion of that service. Another challenge is reaching people who are unable or unwilling to call 311. We have not abandoned neighborhood canvassing and we still conduct “citywide” smoke alarm sweeps after every fire death and if requested by community groups.

Baltimore City has not by any means solved the fire problem completely, but where there are challenges, there are opportunities. Innovative and ambitious programs like this one are just one step in the right direction toward a goal we are all aiming for – “zero fire deaths in our community.” n