A 70-year-old woman died after being rescued from a house fire Tuesday, the Baltimore County Fire Department said Wednesday afternoon. The death comes as the union representing firefighters in the county has expressed concerns about staffing and rolling closures.
The woman, identified as Kathleen Benedick of the 400 block of Lambeth Road, was found in cardiac arrest on the second floor of her home during a house fire and transported to St. Agnes Hospital. Doctors there provided additional treatment before she died, the fire department said Wednesday afternoon.
One fire engine from the Catonsville station was placed out of service at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, just hours before the 911 call, according to the Baltimore County Professional Firefighters Association IAFF Local 1311, the union for firefighters in the county. The engine was placed out of service “due to staffing and overtime issues,” the union said.
Fire Chief Joanne Rund said in a statement Tuesday evening that a 911 call came in at 1:48 p.m. and a truck from the Westview station arrived at the scene “within three minutes.”
Lt. Travis Francis, a spokesperson for the department, said on Wednesday that a 911 call was received at 1:48 p.m. and fire department units were dispatched at 1:50 p.m. Then, a fire truck arrived at the scene at 1:54 p.m., Francis said.
The fire union has been sharing concerns about staffing issues and rolling closures in the county. In her Tuesday statement, Rund said “the department’s response to this incident was immediate and operational deployments did not impact the response time of first responders in this incident. The department will continue to provide the level of service that both the County and our residents expect and deserve.”
Since about September or October 2023, the fire department has put two fire engines out of service each day, said union president Capt. John Sibiga Jr.
Sibiga said the union would “respectfully disagree” with Rund’s assessment that operational deployments were not negatively affecting responses. But, Sibiga said, he could not go so far as to say that the victim in Tuesday’s fire would have survived had the closures not been in effect.
“But obviously, in an emergency situation ... delaying any active response, delaying any actions to mitigate it, is not a good thing,” Sibiga said.
He said that if the Catonsville station had been fully in service, “we would have had two engines ready to take action against mitigating the fire” at the same time. Instead, Sibiga said, one engine arrived three minutes after the first.
Francis, the department spokesperson, said a fire truck from the Westview station arrived at 1:54 p.m. and that a second vehicle arrived from the Catonsville station “seconds later.” An exact timeline of what equipment reached the scene of the fire at what times was not immediately available.
According to the union, the rolling closures stem, ultimately, from a staffing issue.
The county is not able to hire enough professional firefighters and other emergency responders, so those who are on staff are having to work overtime.
But, Sibiga said, staffing is a nationwide issue. It’s not just Baltimore County that is unable to fill positions.
“We can’t hire and have large enough class sizes or recruit classes fast enough for our need,” he said.
Baltimore County has about 120 operational vacancies in the Fire Department, Sibiga said.
County Councilman Pat Young, a Democrat who represents Catonsville, said public safety “should never be sacrificed because of budgetary considerations.”
“Knowing what I know now, if any decisions from administration or management lead to a delayed or altered response time, then that’s completely unacceptable,” Young said.
And, Young said, regardless of the circumstances related to this incident, he’d like Fire Department leadership to appear before the County Council to answer questions publicly about staffing and operational concerns.
The union and the county government “are working diligently and collectively to solve this staffing and budgetary crisis,” Sibiga said. “The county executive has been very accessible in conversations and discussions on how we move forward and stop the rolling closures.”
Erica Palmisano, a spokeswoman for County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., said the administration is proud of the “record investments we’ve continued to make in public safety.”
“We remain committed to working in collaboration with our partners in labor to identify productive solutions to staffing challenges and will always explore additional opportunities to improve operations and support the brave men and women who keep us safe,” she said in a statement.
Fire investigators said the cause of the fire was accidental, stemming from “improperly discarded smoking materials.”