New Faces, New Rules At City Fire Academy

Sweeping changes after death of trainee

Sun Follow-up

March 10, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun reporter

The Baltimore Fire Department is making sweeping changes in its academy and safety office, increasing the staff in both divisions, after a training exercise that killed a recruit. The changes are occurring even as an independent investigation ordered by the mayor into the agency's practices continues.

The department has shifted 13 firefighters from the field to the academy, replacing three senior staff members who have retired since the fatal fire on Feb. 9. With the firing of the academy chief and the suspensions of two others, the changes represent a wholesale turnover in the academy's fire suppression staff.

City officials also say they have secured an $80,000 grant to purchase radios - equipment that one instructor at the fatal burn did not have - beefed up the department's safety division and delayed by a month the current class's graduation.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Sun incorrectly stated the number of new staff members transferred by the Baltimore Fire Department from the field to its training academy. The correct number is 14.
The Sun regrets the error.

On a tour yesterday of the academy grounds off Pulaski Highway, new staff members showed off what they called a series of improvements since Racheal M. Wilson died in a live-fire exercise in a rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore, a fire that did not conform to three dozen national safety guidelines.

"We're trying to move it forward," said Chief Joe Brocato, who was chosen to lead the training academy. "Unfortunately, for no fault of ours, it has been stuck in the '70s because of the limits we've had with staffing." Brocato also leads the homeland security division.

The recruits in Wilson's Class 19 have taken notice. "Now every time you turn, you can't help but bump into an instructor," said Shanntel Wilkins, 29, while taking a short break from an exercise in which she was helping to put out a fire in a minivan on the training grounds.

The safety office, a group that is separate from the academy, is also undergoing a major overhaul. Chief Reginald Sessions is taking command and adding six to 10 people who will be charged with inspecting firehouses and fire equipment and going to additional emergency calls to ensure that firefighters are conforming to safety guidelines as they battle blazes.

Safety officers will now speed to emergency calls before they are confirmed as burns. "When we get there, a ladder is usually already on the fire," said Sessions. "There is a lot of activity and action that has already occurred that we haven't had a chance to see."

Training oversight

The safety office will also send staff to training academy burns. "You can never have too many eyes watching for the what ifs," Sessions said.

Chief William Jones, who was the department's safety officer on the day of the fatal training exercise, was effectively demoted and ordered to report to Sessions rather than Deputy Chief Theodore Saunders.

The fire unions offered measured support for the changes. Bob Sledgeski, the secretary and treasurer of the Baltimore Fire Fighters Local 734, said many of the new instructors have good reputations fighting fires, but he had some concerns with the changes to the safety office.

"They can increase the safety office all they want, but if they don't have the jurisdiction to do something, don't bother," he said, adding that safety officers must feel that they can overrule a fire chief at a blaze if they see a potential problem.

Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers union, said that he has a good relationship with Brocato, the new academy head. "I would say you couldn't find a more quality guy; he bleeds fire service."

It is not clear whether the staff increase will be permanent, but academy instructors and union officials noted that the class sizes have doubled since the 1970s and 1980s, while the staff size has essentially remained the same.

Brocato said he has an ambitious long-term plan for the academy. Although his ideas still need to be approved by the chief, he said he wants to bring the homeland security division, research and development, and the special operations command under the academy's roof.

A white board in his new office included a sketch of the new organizational chart and a list of things to do. The word "fence" is on the list. He wants to build one to help secure the academy grounds. Another white board in a staff room shows plans for each class several days out.

"It makes the communications easier," he said.

The current academy class will graduate a full month behind schedule, which will cost the fire department since it will have to pay overtime to current firefighters while waiting for the new recruits to start in the field.

The situation was unavoidable, Brocato said, since time was lost while the students prepared for Wilson's funeral and coped during the turnover in staff.

New staff members at the academy volunteered to be instructors, not considered a particularly desirable post. It involves more work with less pay because there is no opportunity to earn overtime. Brocato acknowledged that some sort of incentive would be needed to attract good instructors.

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