Morale low, fireman says

At board meeting, lieutenant calls for Goodwin to resign, lists department problems

March 16, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN REPORTER

Fireman speaks up at meeting Lt. Michael D. Jenson sat through an hour of the fire board meeting yesterday, patiently waiting for his turn to speak.

When his chance came, he stood up before the department's command staff and gave an impassioned talk about everything he feels is wrong with the department.

He had a lot to unload.

"I can honestly say that morale at the department is at an all-time low," he said, turning his attention to Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., who had by then left the meeting. "In order to get the Fire Department back on track, I believe Chief Goodwin needs to step down."

His message seemed courageous in a department that is threatening to discipline a fire captain for speaking to a newspaper. Some top union officials say they are too scared to talk.

After Jenson spoke, the three-member advisory board appointed by the mayor - in this case former Mayor Martin O'Malley - told him he was not on the agenda, his remarks were to be stricken from the public record and deleted from the official minutes.

The meeting came two days after an acting battalion chief was suspended without pay for failing to document medical certificates, and after a Feb. 9 training fire killed a recruit, Racheal M. Wilson, prompting the firing of the academy chief and an outside review of safety standards.

Another criticism of Goodwin's leadership came earlier at yesterday's meeting when the Vulcan Blazers, a group representing black firefighters, called for civilian leadership of the 1,700-member department.

"I think there are issues that cannot be resolved," said Henry C. Burris, president of the Blazers. "I wanted to go on the record with that." He declined to elaborate.

The civilian fire board ran the Fire Department until the mid-1990s, when the charter changed and a fire chief appointed by the mayor was put in charge. The current board, which meets quarterly, consists of a lawyer, a real-estate agent and a businessman. Its members advise the fire chief.

James Crockett, the commission's president, said after the meeting that he has always favored civilian control. Stuart M. Nathan, another commissioner, said the issue should be studied. Victor Clark Jr., the third commissioner, declined to comment.

Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon, said the mayor does not support civilian oversight. "She believes ultimately that having the fire chief answer to her is a great way to remind all city leaders that they ultimately answer to the people of the city," he said.

Goodwin, reached after the meeting, said he has no plans to quit.

"My family would love to see me out of this," he said. "I promised the mayor I'd stick around and help her get re-elected, as long as she wants me, that is as long as I'll be here."

Jenson started his speech slowly, hoping the chief would return. He wore a blue suit and clutched his notes, but kept his eyes locked on the commissioners and command staff. He noted that he has been a firefighter for more than 33 years. Just this morning, he said, he rode a truck and helped put out a fire.

"I love the Fire Department like I love my children," he said. "As my children stand correction, sometimes so does this Fire Department. I would like to be a part of correcting it in a positive fashion."

He stopped speaking and glanced at the door. "I don't want to say too much until the chief gets back," he said.

After a few uneasy moments, Crockett urged him to continue.

He said he had inquired about morale from Goodwin a year ago. "I didn't get an answer then," he said.

Jenson continued: "I can honestly say now - and I think anyone in their right mind can say - that we have an answer today. Morale is at an all-time low."

He looked around.

"Any rebuttals on that?" he asked.

The department's two deputy chiefs, and other command staff members stared back with no expression.

The only person to speak up was Goodwin's chief of staff, Lt. Robert Moloney, who said: "I don't particularly agree with you."

When Jenson called for the fire chief to step down, Maloney interrupted: "Are you here representing yourself as a member of the Fire Department?"

"You can say I'm representing myself as a citizen of Baltimore," Jenson said.

He talked about a high rate of turnover in the department, listing names of chiefs who've retired or left. He noted that there have been multiple safety officers and heads of the training academy during Goodwin's tenure.

"If that doesn't tell me anything else, it tells me instability," he said. "It tells me lack of leadership. I have a son in the Fire Department. I don't want him to get burned."

He spoke for about 20 minutes. Toward the end of his talk his confidence wavered. "Is it me?" he asked. "Or does anyone else see things? That something else is wrong?"

Someone said: "Can you please bring this to a close?"

Deputy Chief Greg Ward recommended tabling the discussion.

Jenson persevered. "Someone else is saying there are 1,100 [civil rights] complaints? Did anyone else hear that?"

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