An embattled fire chief

April 20, 2007

Critics of Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. call for his resignation but provide no substantive reasons for retiring him. And without compelling reasons, the criticisms begin to sound like complaints for the sake of complaining. He has his detractors, but the chief has shown he can make tough, unpopular decisions to improve the fire service - and that's what's required of a leader.

An investigation found that a Feb. 9 training exercise in a vacant rowhouse violated 36 national fire safety standards. Cadet Racheal M. Wilson, a mother of two, died in the fire. The department's unions have targeted Chief Goodwin.

The reckless way the fire burn was conducted could have cost Chief Goodwin his job at the top of the 1,700-member department. But let's review his response to the tragedy. He immediately suspended without pay Kenneth Hyde Sr., his friend and the training academy chief he appointed, and three other officers who were on the scene; he stopped the practice of live burns off academy grounds and cleaned house at the academy. He later recommended that Mayor Sheila Dixon fire Mr. Hyde - and she concurred.

Upon discovering lapses in safety certificates of department staff, Chief Goodwin increased safety inspections at fire stations, strengthened the department's safety division and proposed a shake-up in assignments of fire station chiefs, actions that earned him votes of no confidence by some union members. But if Chief Goodwin hadn't responded aggressively to the training accident and other safety issues, others would be calling for his head.

Chief Goodwin's confidence in Mr. Hyde was clearly misplaced, and he could use a dose of humility, but the fire chief has served the city well and responded forthrightly to the bungled training accident. An independent review of the department, ordered by Mayor Dixon after the tragic fire, will be a better judge of Chief Goodwin's management than the criticisms so far.

It takes more than a good chief to distinguish a fire department. A great department depends on strong leadership at the top and fire crews with a commitment to serve in the face of adversity.

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