City Fire Dept. to rotate officers

Battalion chief shuffle aimed at cultural shift

unions criticize plan

March 30, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun reporter

The Baltimore Fire Department announced a shake-up in its midlevel management yesterday, saying overly cozy relationships between chiefs and firefighters have created a culture in which safety standards were not being adequately enforced.

"It is not as difficult to enforce rules and regulations on people you have no real affinity for," said Chief William J. Goodwin Jr.

The reorganization comes seven weeks after a fire cadet, Racheal M. Wilson, was killed in a training exercise that violated 36 safety regulations and five months after a veteran firefighter, Allan M. Roberts, was killed battling a fire in Greektown.

"It seems like an opportune time, after the two deaths, to take a fresh look," Goodwin said. "When you operate outside your normal environment you have to take another look at what you are doing."

Rumors of the shuffle had been posted on firefighter Internet forums for about a week, and yesterday's announcement was quickly condemned by leaders from unions who represent rank-and-file firefighters and their supervisors. They said the changes would create confusion and undermine morale.

Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers union, said the move is "turning the whole department over on its head. ... It is important to know your district, and you don't learn it overnight."

Rick Schluderberg, president of the Baltimore Fire Fighters Local 734, called the change "an unsafe practice" since battalion commanders would be assigned to new, unfamiliar parts of the city. "They are going to be moved to a district that they don't know, so their response time will be longer," he said.

Rick Binetti, a Fire Department spokesman, said battalion chiefs usually do not drive trucks and, therefore, shifting their assignments should not affect how quickly firefighters respond to an emergency.

Under the plan, which goes into effect April 8, 16 of the department's 18 battalion chiefs will be moved to command new areas of the city and new sets of firefighters.

Battalion chiefs command fire scenes and oversee clusters of seven to eight firehouses. They tend to live and work in tight quarters with subordinates when on duty and bond as family members.

The department's two division chiefs will also swap jobs, and their aides will move with them. One division chief is assigned to each side of the city. No one is being demoted.

Goodwin acknowledged that the change would be difficult.

"We have been operating in similar modes for a long, long time," the fire chief said. "I guess you could call it a culture shift. We're taking a look at everything. It happens at your personal life or your professional life if you have a tragedy."

Since Wilson's death, which led to the firing of the academy chief and the suspensions of three commanders, the Fire Department has been re-examining safety standards. Officials bulked up the department's safety office, which began to conduct more inspections of firehouses. As a result, fire officials said, the department's supply office was depleted within two days of the new inspection regimen, suggesting that firefighters were suddenly replacing worn equipment.

Goodwin stressed that the rotations will give the managers experience fighting fires in different type of buildings, as well as improve discipline, benefits echoed by fire commanders from Philadelphia and Washington, where shifting fire officers from job to job is common practice.

The Philadelphia Fire Department moves one-third of the 44 fire chiefs assigned to the field into new posts each year.

"We rely on them to enforce the rules," said Ernest Hargett, a deputy commissioner for the Philadelphia Fire Department. "By rotating them around they don't get too attached to their subordinates. They could become a little too lenient."

Lawrence Schultz, an assistant chief of operations for the Washington Fire Department, said his agency rotates fire officers to give them added experience.

"If I'm a battalion chief in Anacostia, the only experience I get is fire in two-story houses," Schultz said. "I never get the experience of fighting a fire in an apartment building."

The Washington department focuses on homeland security. Its administration supports rotations, in part, because it wants to ensure that many of its chiefs work with hazardous materials and specialty units so they are prepared to handle terrorist attacks.

Goodwin said he does not know whether the rotation announced yesterday will become a permanent fixture in the way the department does business or a one-time change. He said that he will seek feedback from firefighters.

The fire chief said a similar rotation system was used by the department in the 1990s.

"Everyone talks to me about operating in the good old days," Goodwin said. "You still look to the past if there were good ideas by the people who built this department, then why not use them?"

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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