On The Spot


Baltimore's fire chief enjoyed a national reputation until a trainee died in a February exercise

now he's explaining the changes he's making that have angered the department's unions

Q&A -- William J. Goodwin Jr.

April 29, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun Reporter

Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. is a third-generation firefighter. He's been with the Baltimore Fire Department since 1975 and has led it for the past five years. Until recently, he was widely praised as a strong chief. His steady leadership attracted national acclaim when a water taxi flipped on the Inner Harbor in March 2004.

But when Racheal M. Wilson, a fire cadet and mother of two, died Feb. 9 after a live-burn training exercise conducted at a vacant rowhouse on South Calverton Road, the department's questionable training and safety procedures were thrust into the spotlight. At Wilson's funeral, the chief said: "We failed her." Days later he elaborated, revealing that 36 national safety standards were not followed in the exercise.

Wilson's death has led some to re-examine another fatal fire in October on Macon Street, where a seasoned firefighter named Alan Roberts died. A report on that death has not yet been released. Roberts and Wilson were the first firefighters to die in a blaze since Eric D. Schaefer in the eight-alarm Clipper Industrial Park fire in 1995.

The department's director of training, Chief Kenneth Hyde Sr., was fired after an investigation of Wilson's death, and Goodwin's fate hung briefly in the balance. He claimed no personal knowledge of the safety violations, promised to implement fundamental reforms in the department and saved his job.

Since then, Goodwin has proposed radical changes to the department, including the transfer of almost every one of the city's mid-level managers to new posts because of concerns that they've become too close to the rank and file and are turning a blind eye to safety violations. He has also ramped up staffing at the department's safety division and brought in a new staff at the training academy.

Those plans have sparked a passionate negative response from members of the city Fire Department's unions. They expressed no confidence in Goodwin with voice votes at recent meetings, and their leaders are in the process of mailing out paper ballots with which they are expected to express their disatisfaction with Goodwin more definitively.

The chief sat down recently with a Sun reporter to talk about how the department has been changing in recent years, and how Wilson's death may accelerate those changes. What do you make of the two union no-confidence votes?

They purported that it never happened before. But [a no-confidence vote] happened to the last chief. It is part of the territory, I assume. You don't like the CEO, I guess. That is America. I don't know what the purpose would be for a no-confidence vote. That amount of energy put forth in correcting some of the problems [we face] could last 20 years. What are some of the recent big changes at the department?

When I came in the department, the fire unit was never, ever dispatched on an EMS [Emergency Medical Services] call. Now 75 percent [of the fire unit calls] are EMS. The EMS system has become a primary care network for urban areas. The hospitals are overwhelmed. The city's lost its corner doctor's offices that I grew up with. It was a whole different atmosphere. Today I sit on the board for University Hospital. They say their walk-ins have tripled. All this evolution is taking place in what is now the 21st century, and [the Fire Department has] had immense growing pains because of that. What is shifting?

A firefighter in 2007 is not doing anything near what they were doing in 1975. Most of our fires now are in occupied structures. It is not fun. It's not just the Super Bowl anymore. We're here to service the next 911 call. Whatever it is. I've had the unfortunate opportunity to be the chief when all these things changed from how we operated in the 20th century to the business model today. We have $150 million [annual] budget. I feel it is a multimillion-dollar corporation. It has to be held accountable that way, and it has to be looked at that way. What is different now?

Every day, every hour we can show what firefighters are doing. We are 100 percent accountable. I could bring the computer up here and if you give a name and a company and I could show you where the person is. What time they signed in. What their picture is. ... We were touting ourselves, before I was chief, as being Y2K compliant, because we did not have any computers. We had no e-mail. We had floppy disk drives in 2002 when I started. Now the entire department [is] wired, connected, hardware supplied and up and running in this century. The technology improvements must be well-received, though? People like e-mail, right?

It allows us to do things in an asynchronous manner, where you don't have to interact as much. You can do things much, much quicker than we've ever done before. Now we expect those results much quicker. Where before it was `I'm on vacation' or `My shift doesn't start until next week.' Well, that is not good enough any more. But people say that things used to be better, that morale was higher in the past.

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