Baltimore Fire Chief Niles Ford abruptly resigned Friday alongside the publication of a report into January’s deadly Stricker Street blaze, which took the lives of three responding city firefighters.
The report, compiled by regional safety officials, faulted the agency for failing to abide by recommendations made in past reports about close calls and line-of-duty deaths in the city fire department, including hiring assistants to aide incident response leaders and providing first responders with high-technology portable radios.
Lt. Paul Butrim, Lt. Kelsey Sadler, and EMT/Firefighter Kenny Lacayo died while fighting the massive blaze at a vacant home in the Mount Clare neighborhood on Jan. 24.
The report includes photographs of the three slain firefighters’ uniforms and personal protective equipment, which depict tattered, charred clothing and cracked helmets.
It said that previous recommendations could have helped rein in the chaos and confusion at the scene, which included a battalion chief who missed crucial radio calls because they were so overwhelmed with managing the response, as well as a muddled risk management assessment of the fire that did not account for damage from a previous blaze at the rowhome which may have led to structural instability.
“There must be a renewed commitment to leadership, accountability, safety, and professionalism at every level of the Department to bring these recommendations to fruition and solve some of the chronic issues the Department has been dealing with for years,” officials wrote.
“In order to position BCFD for the necessary changes that are upon us, I have decided to accept the resignation of Chief Niles Ford effective immediately,” Mayor Brandon Scott said in a news release.
Ford, who had led the department since 2014, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rich Langford, president of the Baltimore Firefighters Local 734, said he’d seen Ford about an hour before the report was released and that he had not given any indication he was leaving the department.
“We did not see it coming,” he said. “But in the end, this department needs some stability and the membership had lost their faith in Chief Ford’s ability to lead us.”
The report’s table of contents lists a section as a “Message from Dr. Niles Ford, Chief of Fire Department,” but such a section is not found at the listed page. Langford said he received a different version of the report Friday morning that included the section.
“All I know is this is a very abrupt change,” he said.
Battalion Chief Josh Fannon, the president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 964, thanked Ford for his eight years of service and wished him well.
He declined to comment on the timing of his departure.
“It’s important that the department now implements these recommendations, and whoever is going to be serving as the head of this department in the future is going to take that responsibility very seriously,” Fannon said.
Scott said a group of department commanders — Assistant Chief Charles Svehla, Assistant Chief Chris Caisse, and Assistant Chief Dante Stewart — will serve as acting fire chief on an interim basis.
He said that each assistant chief will serve as acting chief for an unspecified time period as the department conducts a search to identify a permanent leader.
Langford said that with Ford out, leaders can work to start rebuilding the department, adding that he had never heard of a series of rotating acting chiefs but that he will trust the mayor’s judgement, describing Svehla, Caisse and Stewart as experienced BCFD members.
In April, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined that the blaze was sparked, either intentionally or accidentally, during criminal activity.
The agency released surveillance images of a man identified as a person of interest in setting the fire, offering a $100,000 reward for information about his location. He has not been publicly identified, nor have any arrests been made.
The incident marked the highest number of city firefighters killed in the line of duty since 1955.
“There are no words or actions that will fill the void or ease the pain felt by the family, loved ones and colleagues of these three heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving the people of Baltimore,” Scott said in a news release.
Cultural and operational recommendations
City 911 dispatchers got their first of numerous calls for a reported dwelling fire at 5:51 a.m. on Jan. 24. Callers provided several different addresses; one stated that three children were trapped inside the home, according to the investigation.
The report details how first responders worked to put out the blaze. Engine 14 arrived to 205 S. Stricker St. two minutes after dispatch. Responders from Truck 23 raised ground ladders into the building as firefighters from Engine 14 and Engine 36 entered the burning home.
At 6 a.m., the report said, “there was a catastrophic interior collapse of the original fire building” that trapped those who were inside working to extinguish the fire — three members from Engine 14, one member from Truck 23, and two members from Engine 36.
The two firefighters from Engine 36 were quickly removed with no injuries. A rapid intervention team was activated and, as large flames still burned and bricks and other debris rained around them, “the other members of the first alarm and Working Fire assignments heroically pushed into the burning building to begin rescue efforts,” the report said.
By that time, the flames had spread to adjoining rowhomes at 203 and 207 S. Stricker St.
At 6:09 a.m., responders made contact with Lacayo, who was trapped in multiple layers of heavy debris. Five minutes later, responders removed Engine 14′s lead-off firefighter, EMT/FF John McMaster, from the rowhome. He was transported to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in critical condition and survived.
For another 90 minutes, responders worked amid burning flames and falling debris to free Lacayo. He was removed at 7:39 a.m. and sent to Shock Trauma. Responders then worked to remove Sadler, who was then serving as acting lieutenant at Engine 14 and similarly trapped under heavy layers of debris. She was removed at 8:18 a.m. and transported to Shock Trauma.
Due to the unstable conditions of the building, and concerns of a secondary collapse, the report said, the incident commander evacuated the burning building and shifted operations to a recovery mode.
Responders used heavy construction machinery to remove the front wall of the rowhome and large amounts of debris inside. After several hours, BCFD members were permitted back into the building to complete the search for Butrim, officer of Truck 23, by hand. He was recovered at 4:08 p.m.
In February, a group of emergency officials from the city, Prince George’s County, Howard County and Washington, D.C., began compiling the report, conducting interviews with first responders, and analyzing 911 calls and videos and still photos from the incident.
Their analysis described an absence of policies and personnel procedures that, despite best efforts and heroism from first responders, led to what the report described as confusion and a lack of unity on the scene.
“Some of the recommendations will require great change, culturally and operationally,” officials wrote.
They include establishing a unified command when complex incidents involve multi-agency or multi-jurisdictional units. The report’s authors noted that “a single individual cannot effectively perform all tasks associated with Incident Command.”
Battalion Chief 3, who was not named in the report, told investigators he was “task saturated” as he attempted to manage the suppression efforts, rescue operation, and maintain accountability “without any assistance and exceeding the span of control. "
“During interviews, Battalion Chief 3 reported feeling very overwhelmed, knew he was missing radio transmissions, and had a difficult time organizing the incident,” the report said.
Interviewed members also reported a “lack of Unity of Command” with multiple agencies responding to the scene. “Individuals from partner agencies were attempting to lead specific rescue and recovery operations and provide direction of a technical nature with unknown credentials,” the report said.
Previous reports have called for hiring assistants for the battalion chiefs in charge of overseeing incident responses, particularly for scenes where multiple agencies are providing services.
“Having an aide for a chief would give them the ability to be able to strictly focus on that fire so they don’t miss radio transmissions and have a second set of eyes,” Langford of IAFF 964 said.
He said that city leaders have also ignored repeated recommendations to provide every responder with modern portable radios.
While all department members have portable radios, not everyone is equipped with a type of radio that will alert other responders when calls sent to that radio go unanswered.
Langford likened such technology to the “Find My iPhone” feature on Apple cellphones. “We can make sure members are safe when radios give out certain information if members don’t answer,” he said.
The report also described a general lack of standard operating procedures about combatting blazes or coordinating EMS responses at vacant buildings.
After firefighters removed the plywood placed over the burning vacant building’s front door, significant fire conditions were present on all three floors, the report said, noting that there were also signs of a previous fire and structural instability.
“Units continued with an interior attack despite these conditions being present,” the report said.