More lapses at fire agency

Academy's No. 2 man suspended for failure in recordkeeping

Sun Follow-up

March 15, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN REPORTER

A Baltimore fire commander has been suspended for 30 days for failing to document medical certificates for at least 22 members, including a deputy chief, three top commanders and a top union leader.

In another lapse at the fire academy, 397 firefighters and paramedics - out of 1,700 - do not have licenses to drive fire trucks and other large vehicles, which union officials say forces certified drivers to shuffle from firehouse to firehouse to ensure there is adequate coverage.

These new developments have heightened tensions and insecurities in a department under criticism since a February training exercise that violated safety standards, killed a recruit and led to the ouster of the training academy chief and the suspension of two other members. In addition, a captain is facing punishment after speaking publicly about problems at the academy.

Firefighters, now worried about retribution for speaking out, describe a department in disarray.

"There are a lot of problems within the department," said Bob Sledgeski, the secretary and treasurer of the Baltimore Firefighters Local 734.

"I think that everyone is walking on eggshells now," said Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, head of the fire officers union. "You never know what is going to turn up next."

The problems with medical certification emerged when the new commander of the training academy, Chief Joseph Brocato, began looking into documents for academy classes, said Rick Binetti, a department spokesman.

"We didn't expect to find the holes in recordkeeping that we've found in the past few weeks," Binetti said.

Acting Battalion Chief Terry L. Horrocks was suspended Tuesday night because of his "actions or inactions" at the fire academy, according to internal charging documents. Horrocks, a 17-year veteran, has been the No. 2 person at the academy since January 2004.

"His job has been to create a database and track every member's EMS certification," Binetti said. "And we're finding out now that had not been done on a consistent basis."

Every sworn member of the department is required to keep up at least a basic level of EMS certification. Horrocks was responsible for reminding members to get re-certified and scheduling time for them to get to the training academy, Binetti said.

The department has ordered everyone without current EMS certification to immediately obtain it. He stressed that the 22 delinquent firefighters do not normally perform life support functions. But, he said, "These are public safety personal. Part of their job is to have the ability to provide emergency care - whether that is very minimal or bringing people back from the dead."

Horrocks' lawyer, Paul Ishak, said that he and his client hope to meet with the Fire Department's administration as early as today.

"The general feeling is that people are in shock that Terry Horrocks is being treated this way," he said. "Before talking publicly, he wants to respect his superiors and have a meeting with them."

Retribution

Fugate said that the suspension was "kind of mind-boggling" and said he believed the suspension was an act of retribution.

"Very few people have worked as hard as he has to make things work at the fire academy," the union chief said. "In my view he hasn't done anything wrong ... he was simply the keeper of the records."

Binetti denied that the suspension had anything to do with retaliation. "If members are not living up to their duties, we have an obligation to discipline them," he said.

Departmental rules require each member to keep track of individual certification requirements. "If anyone is faulted for losing certification, it is the member's fault," Fugate said. He noted that he is on the list of 22; his certification expired in June 1993.

Binetti declined to identify the people lacking certification but said their ranks ranged from firefighter to battalion chief. He said none of them rides on medic units.

The Sun sent a partial list of fire commanders to the Maryland Institute of Emergency Medical Services Systems, the state agency that provides EMS certification. Five commanders and one union chief had allowed their certification to lapse.

Two of the people that The Sun uncovered were not on Binetti's original list, raising questions about whether the department knows the full scope of the problem. "This is one of the reasons Horrocks has been put on charges," Binetti said.

Fire commanders without EMS certification include Deputy Chief Theodore Saunders, who is second in command; Commanders Raymond O. Devilbiss and Steve Weigman; and Capt. James Gardner.

Refresher course

Binetti noted that Saunders was aware of his lack of certification and signed up for classes several weeks ago.

He noted that the certification lapses for Saunders and Gardner are within a three-year grace period, and they need only to take a refresher course in order to meet standards. Devilbiss, Weigman, Robinson and Fugate need to take the entire course again in order to meet standards.

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