Speaking up

March 15, 2007

The Baltimore Fire Department defends its decision to discipline a fire captain for speaking publicly about a bungled training exercise, saying to do otherwise would send the wrong message to the troops. But if firefighters view the punishment as a warning against criticizing the agency, fire officials will have done the agency and the public a disservice.

It's too easy to keep silent to protect a career.

The fatal Feb. 9 training incident failed on so many levels that punishing those who commented on what happened that morning or the circumstances leading up to it sounds like a belated effort to stamp out criticism. The department wasn't very forthcoming initially, and the first public assessment of the training exercise by the fire chief was wrong.

The department has cited Capt. Brian K. Edwards, a former training academy instructor, for speaking to the press without permission. He told The Sun that Battalion Chief Kenneth Hyde Sr., who led the training academy and oversaw the training exercise, was ill-equipped to run a live burn exercise in a city rowhouse and was overwhelmed by the job. Captain Edwards faces a verbal reprimand or loss of one day's pay.

If he erred, it was not in making public comments but rather in keeping to himself any concerns or reservations he had about Chief Hyde's ability to run the academy and plan for a live burn outside academy grounds.

Days after the fatal fire, Mayor Sheila Dixon remarked that fire officers and other veterans participating in the exercise raised no concerns and identified no problems with the event. But plenty was wrong - as many as 36 national training standards were violated. Was it indifference or incompetence that fed this silence?

The mayor's comments cast a pall over a department known nationally for its efforts during the 2001 train tunnel fire and Hurricane Katrina. A public accounting of the incident was demanded and it was delivered. Chief Hyde was fired, and off-site training burns were banned.

Beyond the unconscionable lapses in safety procedures that day, what should be remembered is not that a fire captain spoke out of turn, but that others who could have raised alarms didn't speak up, and that may have cost cadet Racheal M. Wilson her life.

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