Tragedy imperils sterling image

Recruit's death may mar reputation of Fire Department

February 25, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy and Annie Linskey | Sumathi Reddy and Annie Linskey,Sun reporters

The Baltimore City fire exercise that killed a cadet had another potential casualty: the reputation of one of the nation's most highly regarded departments, its heroic image captured in real-life and fictional accounts.

Now the department revered for rescue operations such as the 2004 water taxi accident and immortalized in the movie Ladder 49 finds itself in turmoil, its normally insular world vulnerable and exposed.

As the investigation into the fatal Feb. 9 fire brings in a review from the outside, the city Fire Department is emerging from two difficult weeks.

Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., an expert in homeland security issues, nearly lost his job.

Battalion Chief Kenneth Hyde Sr., head of the city's training academy and a friend of Goodwin's, was fired Thursday. Two other fire officers involved in the training exercise remain suspended without pay.

Meanwhile, a preliminary report into the fire on South Calverton Road that killed recruit Racheal M. Wilson depicts a training exercise fraught with flagrant violations of three dozen national regulations, and little oversight.

"There were some pretty incredible errors made, and somebody paid with their life," Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers union, said in an interview last week.

"We like to hold ourselves up as one of the best departments in the country, we compare ourselves to Boston, Chicago, New York - to have a recruit killed in training is the kind of thing that happens in Iowa, in rural America," he added. "It is not the kind of thing that should happen in a major metropolitan area."

But fire chiefs and experts across the nation say that while the episode places a black mark on a department with a fine reputation, they do not expect it will affect the accreditation of its training academy or lower recruitment numbers.

"If they didn't handle it properly and weren't taking action, that's a possibility," said Steven T. Edwards, director of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute and the former chief of the Prince George's County Fire Department. "But in this case, they've admitted what was wrong and they're reviewing their entire system to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Since 2000, more than a dozen firefighters or trainees across the nation have been killed annually in or because of training exercises, Edwards said.

"The nation's fire service should be embarrassed that so many fatalities occur in training," Edwards said. "I'm aware of no other occupation where they have such a high number of fatalities in training.

"It's not just Baltimore City," he added. "It's a nationwide problem."

The Baltimore Fire Department, with 1,700 members, is known as a fierce and aggressive force, trained to fight quickly moving rowhouse fires from the interior, rather than from the outside.

It's a tactic that can be viewed as risky but is essential to prevent fires from spreading along the common attics that the city's rowhouses share, avoiding the destruction of an entire block.

"You talk about New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia - they're all noted for being inside firefighters," said Peter J. O'Connor, chief of the city department in the 1980s. "They go in and attack the fire. They don't just stand outside and pour water in."

In 2001, eight firefighters were injured, one of them critically, in an East Baltimore blaze after the floor collapsed in a burning vacant building.

Though the department briefly toyed with changing its policy, it never did.

Today, the department is respected for its successful recruitment of diverse firefighters, a result of a revamped admissions policy after it was criticized for an all-white class several years ago.

During the subsequent recruitment process, in 2004, the department doubled the number of people who came in to take the admissions test, according to statistics provided by Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the city Fire Department.

The current class of recruits - of which Wilson was a member - had the highest number of women in the department's history.

"Baltimore has always been on the progressive side of our service, leadership and change," said Kelvin J. Cochran, chief of the Shreveport Fire Department in Louisiana and second vice president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. "They're kind of a good model organization of progress and change."

Cochran said the Baltimore department's graceful handling of two high-profile events - the 2001 Howard Street tunnel fire and the 2004 water taxi capsizing - propelled its leaders onto the international stage.

"Those two events were evaluated on a national and even an international scale," he said. "The leadership demonstrated by the incident commanders and Chief Goodwin made for the best possible outcome in both those situations."

Firefighting officials around the country expressed confidence last week in the ability of Goodwin, a man known for producing swift results.

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