Joshua Cain felt miserable as his Engine 58 crew gathered in the kitchen of their Annapolis Road firehouse after a brutal blaze that ripped through several rowhouses and took hours to control.
Only two months into the job as a Baltimore firefighter, he had found a dog that looked just like his childhood Belgian shepherd-poodle badly burned and not moving inside one of the ravaged homes. Cain and his colleagues sat around the kitchen table, telling stories of their own dogs. The camaraderie made him feel "like part of the team," Cain said.
Baltimore's firehouses are more than just a place to park the engine and grab a bite to eat between calls, firefighters say. In good times and bad, they serve as second homes to their companies, especially on 24-hour shifts. But many are as old as the city itself, and like much of the city's infrastructure, they have no shortage of maintenance needs — around $30 million, officials estimated.
When local lawyer and sports agent Ron Shapiro asked Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake last spring how the private sector could help the city, she brought up the firehouses' dilapidated kitchens.
On Tuesday, one year after that first meeting, fire officials and the mayor's office will unveil a plan to renovate 18 of the kitchens over the next year, paid for by more than a dozen Baltimore-based philanthropists and organizations, including Shapiro Negotiations Institute, T. Rowe Price, the Baltimore Ravens and the Caesars Foundation, part of the company building the city's new Horseshoe Casino.
"The kitchen is a meeting place," Fire Chief Niles R. Ford said. "It's a place to break bread and solve the world's problems. It's where you share war stories, mentoring and counseling. It's where you become brothers and sisters."
When Under Armour heard about the project, the apparel company instead offered to outfit three of the department's gyms and grant firefighters lifetime memberships at FX Studios, the fitness center at its Locust Point headquarters.
The kitchen renovations cost about $20,000 each and the gym projects are expected to cost $200,000, Fire Department spokesman Ian Brennan said. The kitchen and gym renovations are scheduled to begin as early as August and finish by next spring.
City firefighters say the upgrades are long overdue.
At the Engine 57 firehouse in Curtis Bay last week, Andrew Malone showed a visitor around a clean but cramped kitchen. The cabinet drawers don't close. The flooring is peeling away at the edges. The drop ceiling has water damage.
Lt. Lou McClain, who oversees the nearly 100-year-old station, called the aging kitchen "embarrassing" compared to its counterparts in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.
"It's a nice firehouse," he said, despite its flaws. "It's well taken care of, and it's as clean as any you'll see."
Over countless meals and cups of coffee, company members get to know one another, talk about their lives and develop a kind of kinship.
"You have most of your conversations in here," Malone said. "It's just like you hear a bunch of good stories in a barbershop."
Jay Chenoweth, who has been a member of Engine 14 on the city's west side since 1995, said the firehouse's kitchen table is where the company talks about its successes and addresses its issues.
"I have a lot of good memories around this table," he said. "And I have a lot of really bad memories around this table. It's more than just a job."
The members of Engine 14, Baltimore's oldest and often busiest firehouse, value its history, but they also recognize its drawbacks.
They built the table and laid the tile that covers the station's uneven concrete floor. The couches in the sitting room are all hand-me-downs, as are the pots, pans and kitchen utensils they use. The framed black-and-white photographs fall off the walls despite the duct tape holding them there. One drawer can't be opened all the way, or all its contents fall to the floor.
The kitchen used to house horses that pulled the fire carriages. It still has a hayloft and a drain in the middle of the floor. "We're trying to live in a barn," said Christopher Night, an Engine 14 firefighter and medic.
Two vending machines and a flat-screen television came from a "Skin Fund" into which the firefighters and medics put part of their paychecks each week.
And the force has faced downsizing and reorganization in recent years due to city budget shortfalls. Three fire crews closed in 2012, transferring firefighters to other stations across the city and putting more of a strain on each company.
"I've been here for 24 years, and it's a thankless job," Capt. Dominic Fiaschetti said. "We deal with the worst of the worst. To have someone say, 'Hey, we want to do this for you,' is great."
A remodeled gym in the fire academy will help with both recruitment and retention, Capt. Mya McConnell said.
"They can see an investment's been made in them and their health," she said, adding that it will help encourage firefighters to stay involved in the academy beyond training.
The new gyms are well-timed, she added, as 10 members of the department recently completed a firefighter-specific course to become certified fitness trainers.
Lt. Daniel Nott said he hopes the facilities and the lifelong FX Studios memberships encourage firefighters to stay in shape throughout their lives.
"It gives everybody a bit of a chance to see that the department cares about their fitness," Nott said.
Virginia H. Eckhard, the fire department's director of logistics, said the department has created a system through which the private sector can help support the department going forward.
"We've been able to grow the relationships with businesses in the area and people who have the means to be able to help," Eckhard said. "They emotionally buy in. It's the best of the city and the best of the private sector at work."
Shapiro, who spearheaded the project, said the excitement was palpable when he met with members of other businesses and nonprofits to get them involved.
The Abell Foundation, Alban Tractor Co., the Bond Distributing Company, Brown Advisory, Kelly & Associates Insurance Group, the Legg Mason Charitable Foundation and Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Sullivan, M&T Bank, MileOne Automotive, Bill Miller, St. Agnes Hospital, MileOne Automotive, the Rogers Charitable Fund, the Shapiro family, Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler, P.A., Stevenson University, Stifel and the United Way of Central Maryland are all sponsoring the project.
"Whether they were large or highly recognized organizations ... or smaller organizations — it just was amazing," he said. "It's a real cross section — the reaction was so positive that it kept feeding us and supporting us in our effort to go on."
Assistant Chief Paul W. Moore III said the department's main concern was cutting through city bureaucracy to be able to put the money to use and show sponsors how much of an impact they could have.
"We wanted to do something with a quick turnaround with a relatively low cost," Moore said.
Shapiro said he visited the firehouses at the beginning phases of the discussions. Having the chance to shake the hands of the firefighters and emergency medics who would benefit from the project reinforced its importance, he said.
"It was a great motivating force in this whole thing," he said. "Here are these wonderful firefighters and EMS people who put their lives on the line for all of us, and they had no idea how much they were appreciated."