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Baltimore Firefighter Unions Say Firefighter Safety Act Could Prevent Them From Doing Their Jobs

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Two local firefighter's unions made clear Tuesday that they do not support the Firefighter Safety Act because it "seems poised to unreasonably restrict" them from performing their duties.

The  Baltimore Fire Fighters Association and the Baltimore Fire Officers Association in a six-page letter to the Baltimore City Council described their grievances with the bill, which regulates the way firefighters respond when a vacant building is on fire.

Councilwoman Danielle McCray (D-District 2) crafted the bill after three firefighters were killed on Jan. 24 after part of a vacant house that was on fire collapsed on them.

A fourth firefighter—John McMaster—was buried amid the rubble but survived his injuries.

"At  the scene of a dwelling fire at 203-7 S. Stricker St., we tragically lost the lives of Lieutenant Kelsey Sadler, and Firefighter Kenneth Lacayo," the letter states. "This incident shocked the conscience of not only the Baltimore City Fire Department, but the public consciousness as well. We shared in our grief collectively and mourn the loss of our friends, while we grapple together with the best way to move forward."

But firefighters don't want to move forward with the restrictions that the legislation aims to place upon them. 

The bill has a provision prohibiting firefighters from attacking a fire from inside a building if it is abandoned, vacant or unoccupied unless there is confirmation someone is inside the building, that the fire is consuming less than 25 percent of the structure, and that conditions permit safe entry.

Additionally, the bill calls for fire department employees to travel no faster than 15 miles per hour over the posted speed limit when responding to an emergency. It would also require firefighters to wear helmets and in-mask thermal imaging cameras, which would only be used at the site of a fire.

That aspect of the bill has confounded some firefighters because it "seeks to solve a problem that does not exist," the letter states.

McCray noted in a statement earlier this year line-of-duty death reports by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health and Board of Inquiry internal investigations emphasized "the alarming absence of internal control systems of accountability at the scene of fires."

Representatives from the Baltimore City Fire Department and a firefighters' union said they were not contacted about the bill before it was submitted. McCray's legislation was created with good intent yet flawed, Richard Langford,  the President of the International Association of Firefighters in Baltimore, said.

"I think a lot of discussion needs to be had with the fire department administration, with both unions to sit with the council to really go through this and make it something that's just not a knee jerk reaction," Langford said of the bill.

But now, push has come to push back. In a letter that represents over 2,500 Baltimore Fire Officers and firefighters, both active and retired, fire officials claim that the bill has troublesome language about speed restrictions. Fire officials noted that speed was not a factor in the deaths of Butrim, Sadler, and Lacayo.

Additionally, the bill's parameters for entering a vacant building that is on fire are problematic, according to fire officials.

The legislation states that the fire must consume less than 25% of the structure at the time of entry. But how does one measure the fire and know whether it has consumed 24% of the house or 26% of the house, fire officials said.

Also, the legislation "is unduly restrictive to the Chief of Fire Department's supervisory and directive authority over operations of the Department," the letter states.

"The Rules of Engagement section of the Firefighter Safety Act is fraught with contradictions and does not serve the industry standards of the fire service at large, particularly not the Baltimore City Fire Department," the letter states. "The Rules of Engagement are best left to the experts, the Baltimore City Fire Department and its members, for development, implementation, and revision."

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