Mayor `upset' by city fire death

Dixon to announce changes in agency as early as today

February 22, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun reporter

Mayor Sheila Dixon said yesterday that she is "disturbed" and "upset" by reports that fire commanders ignored safety standards in a live-fire training exercise in which a recruit died, and she plans to announce changes in the department as early as today.

Backing away from a previous statement in which she supported Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., she declined at her weekly news conference to say whether she still has confidence in his leadership.

"At this point I'm reviewing information, and there are a lot of concerns that I have," she said. "It is very clear that [in] the Fire Department and the training department in particular that there were many, many mistakes that were made."

The mayor would not elaborate on what changes she plans or whether she would fire Goodwin or ask him to resign. She also would not say whether Goodwin has offered to step down.

Former Mayor Martin O'Malley appointed Goodwin as chief in 2002. Dixon, shortly after becoming mayor, announced Jan. 23 that Goodwin would remain in his position. "Chief Goodwin's single-minded focus and commitment to ensuring the safety of all City residents has kept the fire department at the top of the class among fire agencies," the mayor said in a statement then.

Yesterday, Dixon told reporters: "I'm going to be making a major decision. There are a number of options you have to look at. You shut down currently what is being done with burning vacant houses. You look at the leadership in the department for the [fire training] academy as well as those lieutenants responsible for the individual."

Dixon said staging fires in structures located off academy grounds - a practice that has been criticized by other big city fire departments around the country - will also be investigated. "We are getting information from prior training programs to look at the scope of what was done and as well as what was not done," she said.

The mayor complimented rank-and-file firefighters. "We have a strong Fire Department," she said. "We have great firefighters and paramedics who serve this city extremely well."

Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the city Fire Department, declined to comment on the mayor's remarks.

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said last night that he will introduce a resolution in the City Council on Monday for Goodwin and other fire officials to address the training exercise. "There are several issues in terms of compliance that need to be addressed," Harris said.

Details about the Feb. 9 training fire on South Calverton Road in Southwest Baltimore in which Racheal M. Wilson, 29, died have put a spotlight on irregular practices in the department's training academy.

Fire officials have admitted violating some standards set by the National Fire Protection Association for training fires set in dwellings located off training grounds. Union leaders have cited numerous errors, including multiple fires set (standards limit the fires to one), no pre-fire "walkthrough" of the rowhouse, inadequate water supplies and improperly trained firefighters at the scene.

Over the course of the department's internal investigation, three senior members have been suspended without pay: Battalion Chief Kenneth Hyde Sr., head of the academy; Lt. Joseph Crest, the lead instructor; and Lt. Barry Broyes, head of the Rapid Intervention Team.

Documents released yesterday by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City reveal that the South Calverton Road rowhouse used in the live-burn exercise might not have been stable. Last year, housing officials cited the owner, who has since died, and declared the house "not fit for human habitation." In December, a housing inspector wrote that there was "debris throughout the interior" and an addition in the rear was "deteriorating."

The housing agency now owns it.

National safety standards say that loose debris should be removed from a building before it is set on fire and that any holes in the floors and walls need to be patched before an exercise. The Fire Department will not say whether any repair work was done on the house.

Leaders of two union locals representing fire officers and firefighters have been the most vocal critics of how the fatal exercise was run and have repeatedly expressed concerns about the internal investigation. Both union heads stopped short of saying Goodwin should resign.

"I'm sure that would be a tough decision," said Rick Schluderberg, the president of Fire Fighters Local 734.

Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, the president of the fire officer's union, said: "I've had some real knockdown drag-outs with Goodwin. But he wasn't there" when the training fire was lit.

At that time Goodwin was on a homeland security-related trip to Israel. Deputy Chief Theodore G. Saunders was in control of the department.

Dixon has been meeting regularly with the union presidents because their contracts with the city are expiring, and both labor leaders said those meetings included discussion of the fatal training fire. Another meeting is scheduled for this morning.

Dixon planned to meet with Wilson's family last night.

Priscilla Neal, the mother of Wilson's fiance, complimented Goodwin for his attentiveness in the days after the death. "I met him the next day. He was in jeans. He was there," Neal said. "The Fire Department has treated us well."

But Neal said she wants to know what happened: "I know something went wrong."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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