Fire academy head sacked

Fire chief keeps post

Howard County asked to review city safety, training

February 23, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun reporter

Mayor Sheila Dixon dismissed the head of the city's fire training academy yesterday but let the fire chief keep his job after an investigation into the death of a recruit during a training exercise revealed safety violations that have sullied the department's credibility.

Addressing her first crisis as the city's chief executive, the mayor said that 25 regulations established by the National Fire Protection Agency were not followed Feb. 9 when instructors set fires in an abandoned rowhouse and sent cadets inside. Racheal M. Wilson died of injuries suffered during the exercise.

Three fire officers were suspended without pay after the fire on South Calverton Road. Now one, Battalion Chief Kenneth Hyde Sr., has been fired from his $106,600 job, and city officials are asking the Howard County Fire Department to do a sweeping review of all the city department's safety and training practices.

The city's investigation into the fatal fire is continuing. Calls to Hyde, and his lawyer, Peter S. O'Neill, were not returned yesterday.

"I cannot express to you how angry and shocked I was after reading the preliminary report," Dixon told reporters, saying it would be made public today. "It's a black mark on an otherwise outstanding fire department."

Dixon, however, talked of making a culture change in the 1,700-member Fire Department, among the busiest in the country, saying there was plenty of blame to go around. She noted that in addition to recruits, 19 experienced firefighters were at the rowhouse for the exercise, and none apparently took action despite glaring safety lapses.

"The legacy we face as a city going forward is that none of these members stepped up when they knew things weren't right," Dixon said. "Nobody said anything, and maybe if someone had, Racheal Wilson would be alive today. ... I have asked and I am demanding that we make tremendous changes in our department."

Fire Department and union officials have described the fatal exercise as bungled from the start. Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said the three-story rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore was never approved as an appropriate venue for a live burn. It was authorized only for recruits to learn how to rip down ceilings.

A class of recruits removed ceilings in that building several weeks before the fatal fire, inadvertently increasing the "fire-load" or flammability of the house, according to a source who has reviewed the preliminary report. The source said there was no ceiling on the third floor of the building - only rafters.

National fire standards say that firefighters should patch holes in the ceilings or walls of structures that are set to be burned. Walls and ceilings act as barriers and slow the progression of a fire.

The report also says instructors set seven fires throughout the building, a violation of standards that limit to one the number of fires set in a training exercise.

The source who read the report said multiple "stokers" - called ignition officers - set the fires, another violation of safety standards. Also the report shows the recruits never had a "walkthrough" of the building before it was burned. There was only one hydrant - or water source - tapped for the exercise, the source said. The safety rules require two. The Rapid Intervention Team, firefighters who are supposed to be ready to rescue their colleagues inside a burning building, did not have a charged hose or proper equipment, the source said.

Union leaders have also said that the team on the third floor did not have a radio.

Goodwin said the exercise was too complex. "The fire that was set might have been a little bit more than a rookie would encounter," he said.

The chief put most of the blame on Hyde, a close friend who has been criticized by fellow firefighters for taking unnecessary chances while fighting fires. He said Hyde never told him that he was conducting training fires off academy grounds and didn't keep paperwork, and the rowhouse used in the fatal burn was never approved for a live-fire exercise.

Goodwin said Hyde lied to him after the fatal fire, insisting that all of the safety standards had been followed and that all of the paperwork had been filled out. In fact, Hyde was wrong on both counts, Goodwin said.

Hyde was supposed to play the role of safety officer during the burn. "The assigned safety officer just didn't do his job," Dixon said.

Hyde's other problems continue as well. He remains suspended as chief of the Riviera Beach volunteer department in Anne Arundel County amid allegations that he improperly used a fire company credit card. Anne Arundel County police are investigating reports of sexual activity and allegations that volunteers went out on calls after drinking alcohol in the firehouse he supervised.

Yesterday, Goodwin stood beside Dixon at the news conference and several times asked her permission before speaking. Union officials stood behind them.

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