Baltimore suspends two fire officers

Agency says rules ignored in exercise where cadet died

February 14, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,sun reporter

The Baltimore Fire Department suspended without pay yesterday the head of the training academy and the lead instructor who oversaw a "live burn" exercise in a vacant city rowhouse that ended with a cadet's death and injuries to two other firefighters.

In a statement, the department also conceded that the training fire Friday failed to meet standards of the National Fire Protection Association, which city fire officials observe.

Officials declined to elaborate on the shortcomings uncovered in the preliminary investigation into the death of Racheal M. Wilson. But fire union officials said it appears that more than one fire was set in the house, a violation of the federal standards.

Suspended are Division Chief Kenneth Hyde Sr. and Lt. Joseph Crest, who city officials have said was in charge of the exercise.

"I think that is a positive first step in getting to the truth ... as opposed to the obfuscating that has happened to this point," said Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, the president of the Baltimore Fire Officers union. "If there is one individual to blame for this, Hyde was the boss. Like it or not, he was calling the shots."

The investigation has left Wilson's family confused.

"I'm hearing so many different things," said Priscilla Neal, the mother of Wilson's fiance. "I'd like to know what happened in the time between when Racheal left for work at 5:30 a.m. to when she died."

Neal said Wilson was in "excellent physical condition. ... I know the training was hard and intense. But she could do it. She could do it well."

Told of the suspensions, she said: "Very interesting. I knew something went wrong."

Wilson, 29, the mother of two, was at the house with 23 other recruits who were supposed to extinguish a blaze set by instructors in a Southwest Baltimore rowhouse condemned by the city and slated for demolition. She was on the third floor when, fire officials said, she "collapsed." She later died at Maryland Shock Trauma Center. The state medical examiner's office has said the finding on the cause of her death is pending.

Such training exercises are called "live burns" in "acquired buildings." Typically, such training is done by rural or volunteer departments, which lack access to a training facility. The Baltimore City Fire Department has such a facility on Pulaski Highway.

Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. briefed Mayor Sheila Dixon, her chief of staff and City Solicitor George Nilson about the fire yesterday morning. The suspensions, unusual in their severity, shocked union officials who had been critical of the way the exercise was handled.

Hyde faces trouble on two fronts. He was suspended last week as chief of the Riviera Beach Volunteer Fire Department in Anne Arundel County after allegations surfaced that volunteers were responding to fires after drinking alcohol, that sexual activity was taking place in the firehouse and that financial irregularities had occurred.

Neither Hyde nor Crest could be reached for comment last night.

Fugate said that in a meeting with union officials Monday, Goodwin stated that the department did not comply with two of the 25 requirements listed in national regulations that govern the way training fires are set and fought.

Fugate said that at least two and as many as five separate fires were set for cadets to extinguish. Only one fire is supposed to be set during training exercises that are not on academy grounds.

The regulations also require a safety officer to be designated. Fugate said that when he arrived at the scene of the fire Friday, he noticed a white board on which the names of the leaders for the exercise were listed. "There was no designation for safety officer," he said. "I think that would have been designated on the command dry-erase board."

Safety officers are supposed to remain apart from fire commanders and ensure that firefighters are properly equipped, are not sent into dangerous situations without backup and protection, and are in compliance with local, state and federal safety regulations.

The department has said Hyde, though he runs the academy, took the position of safety officer at the training fire and left the command of the exercise to Crest. Union officials question whether, practically speaking, Hyde assumed both roles.

Rick Schluderberg, the president of Baltimore Firefighters Local 734, raised several questions about the exercise: For example, was there a Mayday signal? Did the recruits conduct a walk-through? Were exits identified? Were enough certified instructors on the scene? "Everything didn't happen as planned," Schluderberg said. "There were mistakes made. We're not going to shift anything under the rug. We won't be part of any coverup."

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