A full accounting

February 22, 2007

The men who were training Racheal M. Wilson to fight fires in Baltimore didn't protect her. They led her into harm's way. The training exercise at which the 29-year-old recruit died was fraught with safety failings, a department investigation so far has shown. That is unacceptable in any case, but even more so when the lives of inexperienced recruits are at stake.

Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. has acknowledged that the department "failed" Ms. Wilson. But the investigation of the accident has to go beyond the circumstances of this young mother's death to ensure that other recruits aren't needlessly endangered.

Ms. Wilson, the mother of two, died from burns and asphyxia in a Feb. 9 exercise in which a city rowhouse was intentionally set afire, a procedure that has been abandoned by many urban departments because of safety concerns. Most city departments conduct a fire burn at a training facility, which is more controlled. Baltimore does both, even though the National Fire Protection Association recommends against doing live burns if a department has a training academy such as Baltimore's.

The Feb. 9 exercise was mismanaged in critical ways. Reporting by The Sun's Annie Linskey has identified a series of national safety standards that officers running the training exercise at a South Calverton Road house did not meet. The lapses in safety protocols suggest either incompetence on the part of fire officers overseeing the exercise or arrogance that compromised the well-being of everyone on the scene that day.

Until this accident, neither of the fire unions had complained about using live burn exercises to train recruits. The department's safety record in training apparently has been good - since 2002, about 13 fire recruits out of 441 trainees have received minor burns in training incidents.

But Ms. Wilson's death has raised concerns about the staffing and management of the training academy. Since 2002, the academy has had at least three directors, including Acting Division Chief Kenneth Hyde Sr., who recently rose through the ranks in the department and was overseeing his first class of recruits. He was at the February training exercise and has been suspended without pay along with two other fire officers.

The department is wrapping up its investigation of the accident, a tricky business because it is basically investigating itself. The city police arson unit also is looking into it.

Chief Goodwin has pledged a comprehensive review. Ms. Wilson's family and the public deserve a full accounting of its results.

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