Fire death coverage shows what beat reporting can do



Recent articles in The Sun about a Baltimore City firefighter cadet who died in a training accident show the importance and power of newspaper beat reporting.

Annie Linskey, a Sun police reporter, wrote a daily news article for the Saturday, Feb. 10, edition about the Feb. 9 death of cadet Racheal W. Wilson, a 29-year-old mother of two. But by Monday, under the direction of assistant city editor Peter Hermann, Linskey began the kind of detailed reporting that within days exposed serious problems inside the fire department - including its failure to follow national fire-training procedures and discord between firefighters and the command staff.

Day by day in this fast-moving story, Linskey's probing and accurate reporting pushed the recalcitrant fire department leadership to investigate its practices and make information public.

These stories, which appeared on Page One and the Maryland section front, gradually revealed the mistakes, broken rules and sloppy procedures that led to the suspension and then dismissal of Battalion Chief Kenneth Hyde Sr., the head of the training academy.

At the Feb. 16 funeral for cadet Wilson, Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. told mourners, "We failed her."

This is the way beat reporting works. You ask specific questions, get information, ask more questions, broaden your scope and continue to work until the story is told in full. Because this particular story is still unfolding, Linskey, Hermann and others are continuing to evaluate new information and check out new angles.

In this challenging and changing era for newspapers, some editors are considering altering the traditional beat structure by having one group of reporters do short daily stories while others develop the larger overview stories. But beat reporting involves reporters spending time in the community and developing the sources, instincts and expertise to recognize an exceptional story and pursue it with daily and larger-framed stories. Such efforts make for great newspaper journalism.

The Sun's decision last October to add Linskey (who was at the time a reporter in the Anne Arundel bureau) to the city desk's crime beat has paid big dividends for readers. It has added depth to one of the newspaper's most intense and important reporting areas, giving police reporter Gus Sentementes and crime reporter Julie Bykowicz, who concentrates on courts, more time to produce investigative pieces as well as daily stories.

In this case, it allowed editors to set Linskey free to pursue the fire department story full time without cutting back on any other crime beat reporting.

Linskey's articles have brought into focus the fire department's highly questionable use of vacant rowhouses to conduct live fire-training exercises (even though it has its own training academy). The front-page Feb. 13 article, "City Halts Training Exercise," reported that virtually no other big cities allow fire departments to train with live fires in vacant houses and that, in the Wilson case, the Baltimore department broke several training rules - including setting multiple fires in the building.

Subsequent articles showed that the exercise lacked the proper number of supervisors to ensure safety and that a cadet and career firefighter were injured in another vacant house training fire the day before Wilson died. That information in a Feb. 16 article, "Two hurt in earlier city exercise," was reluctantly confirmed by the fire department after several days of questioning. The article also correctly raised the issue about whether the department was being forthright.

A Feb. 21 front-page article, "Safety ignored in fire exercise," contained new details about the breakdown of procedures at the exercise where Wilson was killed. Based on information from the firefighters union, Linskey's article noted that recruits were not familiar with the layout of the building, did not know how many fires would be lit, did not have a radio or a backup water source and were led by untrained instructors.

Reader Veronica Grummand said: "With every article I read in The Sun about this case, I feel less and less confident about what's going on at the fire department. What firefighters do is so important and dangerous so it is scary to think that bad decision making and lack of proper supervision was happening at this level."

Editor Hermann said: "I don't doubt that the fire department is conducting a thorough investigation and will come out with a report. But I don't believe for a moment, as thorough as our reports have been, that we have more than scratched the surface. So far our reporting has cut through bureaucratic red tape - reporting that has no doubt upset some city leaders - but its veracity has not been challenged."

One member of the fire department told Linskey: "Thank you for your very accurate reporting on the death of FPA Wilson. You are getting to the truth, but the problems are much deeper."

Stay tuned.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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