Take-charge commander faces test of leadership

Fire Chief Spared

February 23, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN REPORTER

During his 32-year career, Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. built a reputation as a straight-forward leader - a confident officer in his department as it dealt with crises, from a smoky blaze inside a train tunnel to an Inner Harbor water taxi accident that killed five.

But the veteran firefighter is facing a new test. Yesterday, he stood stoically chastened next to Mayor Sheila Dixon at City Hall as she blasted the department's handling of a training exercise that led to the death of a recruit, announced the firing of one of his top chiefs and called for "tremendous changes" in the agency he runs.

A day earlier, his job appeared in jeopardy when Dixon would not say whether she had confidence in him. But Goodwin stayed chief, in charge of a department whose morale and reputation have been damaged since 29-year-old Racheal M. Wilson was killed Feb. 9 in a training exercise that went wrong. Yesterday, Goodwin sidestepped questions about whether he had offered to resign, but he took responsibility for the department's actions the day Wilson died.

"The ultimate responsibility is mine, and I never step away from that," Goodwin said. "It's an awesome but humbling responsibility to have to protect this city while it works and while it sleeps."

Dixon said she did not ask for Goodwin to resign, and she credited him for his "strong leadership and commitment."

Goodwin, a third-generation firefighter, joined the department in 1975 and steadily climbed the ranks. He held many different positions, including heading the training academy, the same job that Chief Kenneth Hyde Sr. held until he was fired by Dixon.

In July 2001, Goodwin played a pivotal role in the city's handling of a raging fire in a CSX train tunnel in downtown Baltimore, leading firefighters into the chemical-fueled inferno. Mayor Martin O'Malley, noting his calm yet decisive demeanor, tapped Goodwin in February 2002 to lead the department, despite having conducted a nationwide search for a new chief.

Goodwin took charge of a department that had lacked a permanent leader for more than a year, and faced declining morale among the rank and file and complaints about minority hiring and promotional opportunities.

His appointment came several months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Goodwin and the department had to face the additional responsibility of helping to plan for potential terrorist attacks.

Known as a confident, articulate commander, Goodwin quickly became O'Malley's point person on homeland security issues. Five years later, the city Fire Department has a reputation for being a regional and national leader in homeland security preparation, Goodwin said yesterday.

Goodwin received high marks for his efforts in a deadly water taxi accident in 2004 off Fort McHenry in South Baltimore. He publicly thanked quick-acting Navy reservists for helping rescue passengers and stood vigil as fire rescue divers scoured the murky waters seeking to recover the four people who died. He vowed to not give up the search to bring closure to victims' families.

Rick Schluderberg, president of the Fire Fighters Union Local 734, described the labor organization's relationship with Goodwin as one of "love-hate." But he credited Goodwin for being an intelligent leader who has helped secure homeland security grant funding for the department and helped fix up city fire stations.

"There's a lot of things he's done right," Schluderberg said.

With the death of Wilson, however, Goodwin's leadership style is being called into question. He said yesterday that when he ran the training academy, he spent months documenting and gaining approval for "live burn" training exercises.

But it appears that he never demanded that same level of documentation from Hyde, a close friend of his. After Wilson died, Goodwin spoke with Hyde, who told him that he had followed national fire training safety standards during the fatal exercise. But later, Goodwin said, Hyde could not provide documentation that showed that he had followed those standards.

"This was one day that went really, really bad," Goodwin said at the news conference. "And there's no excuse for that, nor will there be any way to correct that unfortunate day. We can correct it going forward."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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