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The semi-regular occurrences of extreme weather have strained municipal resources to nearly a breaking point. No local government service has been burdened greater than the fire service. Not only do fire departments help the citizenry prepare, we maintain peak staffing during the event, mitigate the effects of the storm, rescue stranded people, transport dialysis patients for treatments, deliver food and bottled water, remove trees, clear streets, turn off utilities in flooded basements, check on the elderly, deal with the inevitable loss of electric – the list goes on and on.
Did I mention we also continue our core functions such as fighting fire and providing emergency medical care?
Juxtaposed with the increasing occurrences of extreme weather events has been a slashing of fire department budgets and staffing. The fire service is expected to handle these “once-in-100-year” storms every two years with fewer and fewer first responders. While fire chiefs, for the most part, do not have the control over their department’s level of funding that they desire and they certainly have no control over the weather, they do have complete control over how they deploy their assets. No other resource is more important than the human resources fire chiefs have at their disposal.
Reserves at the ready
The Baltimore City, MD, Fire Department (BCFD) has come to use fire inspectors and other members from the Fire Marshal’s Office to buttress its suppression forces during extreme weather. All of the BCFD’s fire inspectors are former firefighters and/or paramedics. While they do not regularly fight fires (nor are they expected to), they do maintain their EMS certification and their driver’s license to drive emergency apparatus. During these storms, fire inspectors perform myriad essential non-emergency or low-emergency duties that help keep fire suppression units available for the highest-priority emergency calls.
In years past, when a member was promoted into the Fire Marshal’s Office, fire inspectors turned in their turnout gear and said “farewell” to responding to emergency calls, working nights and weekends and coming to work when city government offices were closed due to bad weather. These assumptions have been replaced along with the fire inspector’s turnout gear.
Now, fire inspectors keep their turnout gear in their car, have been issued a “storm kit” and expect to be called in when bad weather has been forecasted. Fire inspectors have become the reserve force, pressed into service, when needed to perform almost any service as needed. Many ask, “What can fire inspector’s do during a storm?” “What’s the point?” “They have no hoselines, no ladders, no four-wheel-drive vehicles?” To answer these questions, we need only examine three extreme weather events in Baltimore where fire inspectors were used.
In February 2010, the Mid-Atlantic region was slammed with a blizzard of epic proportions. The “snowmageddon” was a Category 3 nor’easter that dumped 30 to 40 inches of snow on Baltimore City and many other jurisdictions. It was essentially three blizzards that hit within a 12-day period. The city was crippled, streets were inextricably blocked and everything was “Arctically” frozen.
There was so much snow and nowhere to put it! The city did not have enough snowplows nor enough snowplow drivers. As a lifelong resident of Baltimore City, it was the first time I can recall “Phase 3” of the city’s snow-emergency plan being declared, which effectively banned all but emergency vehicles from roads and forbid people on the street.