Officers vote no faith in fire chief

Firefighters unions want leader to quit

April 17, 2007|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,SUN REPORTER

In a unanimous voice vote last night, about 50 of the city Fire Department's top brass said they had no confidence in embattled Chief William J. Goodwin Jr.

The call by members of the Baltimore Fire Officers' Union, representing 325 lieutenants, captains and battalion chiefs, follows a similar voice vote for the chief to step down by the union for 1,300 rank-and-file firefighters.

Goodwin has faced an onslaught of criticism since a live-fire training exercise at a vacant Baltimore rowhouse on Feb. 9 burned out of control and claimed the life of fire cadet Racheal M. Wilson. An investigation of the incident revealed that 36 national safety standards were ignored, resulting in the firing of Kenneth Hyde Sr., the head of the department's training academy, and the suspension of three other top training officials.

Officials from both unions said they plan to mail paper ballots to all of their members by the end of the week to demonstrate that the entire force agrees with the voice votes. Results of the balloting are expected in about two weeks.

"We believe we've reached the point, where it's either him or us," said Stephan G. Fugate, president of the fire officers' union. "And ... we are the Fire Department. One man doesn't make the Fire Department. And we believe in order for the department to move ahead, he needs to remove himself from the Fire Department."

Goodwin was not available for comment.

Rick Binetti, a Fire Department spokesman, downplayed the vote, saying that unions routinely criticize chiefs.

"It's a shame that Mr. Fugate feels it's the Fire Department administration or the union leadership," Binetti said. "The Fire Department has been moving forward since this tragedy happened, not only with the battalion chief leadership of this department - collectively we've been moving forward. To this point, the only people that have not wanted to come to the table and help us move forward and help us move past this is union leadership."

Goodwin has taken steps to improve safety standards in the department by bringing in a new staff at the fire academy and spending thousands of dollars on new equipment. He has also banned off-site live training burns.

He has also increased safety inspections at fire houses and added staff to the department's safety division.

And in a move that has been sharply criticized by union officials - and might have played a role in last night's negative vote - Goodwin announced a plan to move most of the department's midlevel managers to new posts. He has delayed the shake-up in anticipation of a meeting Friday with the city's battalion chiefs to discuss the moves.

Like the officers union, the local representing the rank-and-file said it was sending paper ballots to all of its members, hoping for a massive vote of no-confidence that would demonstrate the depth of opposition to Goodwin.

"We want to make it perfectly clear the feelings of the membership," said Rick Schluderberg, the president of Firefighters Local 734 union. "If they [the fire chief and his spokesman] want confirmation, we're going to give it to them."

Schluderberg said the use of paper ballots for a no-confidence vote is unprecedented, as union votes are routinely conducted by voice or through voting machines.

Mayor Sheila Dixon, who has defended Goodwin and dismissed calls for his removal, continued to support the chief yesterday, according to her spokesman, Anthony W. McCarthy.

"Mayor Dixon believes that the Fire Department is moving in the right direction, making some much-needed changes in light of the death of Racheal Wilson," said McCarthy. "It's our understanding that some members of the rank-and-file leadership of the Fire Department are uncomfortable with the pace of those changes, but Mayor Dixon believes that Chief Goodwin is the right person at this moment to see those changes through."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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