A decorated firefighter finds himself in unfamiliar position

Probes aim at hero

February 15, 2007|By Andrea F. Siegel and Annie Linskey | Andrea F. Siegel and Annie Linskey,Sun Reporters

He is a man whose life has been defined by racing from one emergency to the next during a two-decade career with the Baltimore City Fire Department and with his community volunteer fire company.

His gung-ho style -- both as a paid firefighter and advocate for the volunteers -- helped him move up the ladder in both organizations, to acting division chief in charge of training in the city and as chief of the Riviera Beach Volunteer Fire Company. He became a local hero when he recovered the first of three missing bodies after a water taxi capsized in the Baltimore Harbor in 2004.

But in the past 10 days, Kenneth B. Hyde Sr. has been suspended from both positions, and is in the midst of probes into a cadet's death in the city and into allegations of problems at his volunteer firehouse.

It's an unfamiliar situation for the third-generation firefighter, whose heroics have earned him commendations -- one from the floor of Congress.

"He is a strong man. It is very difficult for him to deal with these allegations," said his lawyer, Peter S. O'Neill. "He believes he will prevail."

O'Neill said Hyde would not comment for this article.

Hyde, 41, is a man with detractors and defenders. He is variously described as a person who is unselfishly devoted to saving lives or who takes too many risks, a hotheaded boss or a cool-headed manager.

"The consensus of my membership is that he's like a cowboy. He's goes off half-cocked, a loose cannon," said Rick Schluderberg, the president of Baltimore Firefighters Local 734.

The sentiment is echoed privately by some current and former Riviera Beach volunteers and current and former city firefighters, who say he can be belligerent with subordinates.

Hyde is one of two Baltimore City fire officers suspended without pay Tuesday in the death of cadet Racheal M. Wilson during a training exercise. The department acknowledged that it failed to meet standards of the National Fire Protection Association during that exercise.

Hyde has also been suspended from his role as chief of the Riviera Beach volunteers, first in January when he did not provide documentation of repaying the fire company for use of its credit card several years ago and again a week ago Monday.

An Anne Arundel County probe into the firehouse has turned up reports of sexual activity, firefighters watching pornography on station computers and volunteers going out on calls after drinking alcohol, though he is not suspected of participating directly in those infractions. His 60-day suspension Feb. 5 stems from that.

In addition, the Anne Arundel County Police Department has two investigations of the firehouse under way: one into allegations of a sexual offense there, the other into allegations of financial irregularities.

Another investigation, this begun by the Riviera Beach Volunteer Fire Company's board, was into his use of its credit card, which Hyde characterized as rehashing a matter that was resolved in 2004. He reportedly said that after his 1996 bankruptcy, he was unable to get credit and had permission to use a Riviera Beach credit card for work and then reimburse the fire company.

O'Neill said his client is not at fault in the city's fatal fire Friday. He was not responsible for the safety supervision of Wilson, O'Neill said, though the city department said he was designated as the safety officer for the exercise. In that role, his entire job is supposed to be ensuring that risks are minimized.

Capt. Brian Edwards, who worked in the Baltimore City Fire department's training academy for six years, described Hyde as a "conscientious" individual and a man who is easy to work with. However, Edwards said that Hyde was "overwhelmed by his position" as the head of the academy.

Baltimore City Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. appointed Hyde to be the director of the training academy in 2005, a move criticized by some.

"They put him position where he was doomed to fail," said Edwards, who was assigned away from the academy shortly after Hyde arrived. "He was not familiar enough with the training at the academy to take a class out to an outside burn, and he did not know the requirements. He did not know the procedures."

Rick Binetti, communications director for the Fire Department noted that Hyde rose through the ranks for 19 years before he was appointed to lead the training academy.

"Anything that he was challenged to do in the Fire Department, he just did a stellar job at," Binetti said.

But not all of Hyde's subordinates shared a rosy view of his leadership style. A dispute between him and a volunteer last summer landed in District Court in Annapolis -- each accused the other of assault -- but ended with each agreeing not to pursue it and the state's attorney's office deciding not to prosecute.

Ray Smallwood, chief of the Maryland City Volunteer Fire Company, who has known Hyde for 20 years, describes Hyde as "forward-thinking" and an exceptional advocate for volunteers.

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