Baltimore City Council members grill fire chief on video, cooperation on fire code issue

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Firefighters anchor down a tiller on Maryland Avenue on June 19. Screenshot from Baltimore City Fire Department video.

For more than an hour Tuesday, city council members questioned the Baltimore fire chief about the motive and message behind a controversial video that firefighters made in June to try to demonstrate the challenges bike lanes present for fire apparatus on narrow streets.

“The only reason that I gave you all a video—and I thought about it—was to make sure you knew what I thought I saw,” Fire Chief Niles Ford told council members.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey has proposed substituting new language into the city charter, eliminating a provision that sets street clearances of 20 or 26 feet for fire apparatus. Councilman Eric Costello, the committee’s chair, on June 19 called on BCFD to make “demonstrable progress” on the issue with other agencies. The department responded with a video (sent to lawmakers as a DVD) hours later.

In the footage, firefighters park a tiller along sections of Maryland Avenue and Cathedral Street, deploying the truck’s outriggers, or anchors, close to parked cars to show how nearby bike lanes can leave them cramped for space. The truck is able to drive and anchor down in both cases.

The council’s Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee called Tuesday’s hearing in part to ascertain what the Baltimore City Fire Department was trying to say with its video. City Council President Jack Young, who watched the 9-minute clip for the first time at the start of the hearing, said he drew an entirely different conclusion than what the department was trying to show.

“I’m glad I had a chance to see the video,” he said, “because it shows to me, clearly, that the fire department can get to fires in these narrow streets.”

Lawmakers also questioned why BCFD chose the 2700 block of Maryland Avenue for one of its two filming sites.

Liz Cornish, the executive director of cycling-advocacy nonprofit Bikemore, and Austin Davis, a city employee and cyclist allegedly assaulted by a fire department employee at a May public meeting, both live on that block. Pre-written testimony from Cornish, who was traveling, told of how she “made eye contact” with Assistant Fire Chief Teresa Everett as the department finished filming that day.

“It felt personal, it felt threatening, and made me feel less safe in my home,” Cornish’s letter read.

Dorsey said that the action amounted to intimidation. Costello also suggested the setting wasn’t random.

“I would implore you to consider how a reasonable person would conclude that of all the block faces on a 2.6-mile stretch,” he posed to Ford, “that if it’s on the same block that the head of Bikemore and the individual from the Planning Department who was assaulted both live on, how a reasonable person could come to that conclusion that they felt threatened.”

Ford denied that the department had any knowledge that both Cornish and Davis live there, and that they chose the street because fire trucks have “been on that road and done that before.” He said Everett told him she would not know who Cornish is unless she introduced herself. (Bikemore policy director Jed Weeks testified at the end of the hearing that both he and Cornish have attended meetings with Everett present, including multiple meetings of the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Commission.)

“It wasn’t a goal to try to intimidate anybody,” Ford said. “That is not what the fire department does.”

“You make $190,000 a year, am I correct?” Dorsey later said. “I would expect somebody that we pay significantly in that manner to take certain things into consideration. Where out of all of the 50 blocks or whatever it is would be the dead worst place to do something like that?”

Beyond the alleged May assault of Davis, Cornish’s letter mentioned other cases in which cyclists said they were targeted by firefighters.

One woman she referenced, Alyssa Domzal, testified Tuesday that she was biking on Falls Road last month when a man driving a pickup truck with a BCFD decal “followed me in unsafe, illegal passing distance at high speed, and then pulled in front of me and yelled, ‘I still hate you.'”

“To me, that warrants investigation,” Domzal said, standing next to the seated fire chief, “because that’s someone whose job it is to drive around and make the city safer in his professional life, and in his personal life, [is] using his car to try to actively make the city less safe.”

“I know nothing about multiple events,” Ford had responded to Cornish’s letter earlier on. Domzal said she was “surprised to hear” that, given that he’d told her he was “well-aware” of her case. He later clarified that he was familiar with two incidents, including hers.

Ford also argued against a claim made last week by Dorsey in an interview with Baltimore Fishbowl. The councilman had alleged the fire truck the department brought to Maryland Avenue in the video was “not a truck that would ever be called” to that street, and one the department “has never used.”

“The truth of the matter with that truck is that we responded on that street last month,” Ford retorted. He explained that the tiller is useful in that location because it’s larger than a straight engine and has a driver in back to navigate sharp corners. “We’re gonna consciously use a tiller because of the challenges we know we have on that street.”

The June 19 video from BCFD screens inside the city council chambers. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Other lawmakers questioned Ford. Councilman Leon Pinkett, whose district includes West Baltimore, asked why BCFD began opposing specific bike infrastructure and development projects over street-width issues only last year after a dispute over a two-way bike lane in Canton.

“You didn’t have to go to a street that has bike infrastructure,” Pinkett said. “You could have taken the truck to many other streets in the city”—such as ones with standard two-way parking—”and shown the challenges that the fire department has.”

Ford replied that those streets were already designed that way—”the issue is that that’s before us”—and that it would be “counterintuitive to public safety” to look at places that were already determined to be fire code-compliant.

Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the Public Safety Committee, asked Ford if BCFD tracks instances where fire trucks run into access issues during emergencies due to street design. The fire chief said no.

Councilman Kristerfer Burnett noted data supplied by Ford pointed to high concentrations of fire deaths in certain city districts. Given the trend, Burnett said, keeping closer figures on challenging areas for BCFD “would be critical.”

Costello concluded the hearing asking Ford for a “final resolution” on five projects–development plans and bike infrastructure—that have been stalled by BCFD opposition. He told Ford he would like to “see something in writing” by next Monday. If Ford delivers, Costello said they would continue to hold Dorsey’s committee-approved bill from a full council vote.

Ethan McLeod
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