New era sought for Fire agency

`Culture' shift stressing safety would encourage firefighters to challenge supervisors

Sun Follow-up

May 08, 2007|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

Responding to safety violations that led to the death of a recruit, Baltimore fire officials called yesterday for a cultural overhaul that would encourage firefighters to focus on safety, even if it meant challenging supervisors, something they are taught early in their careers not to do.

"We need to reinforce to everyone how dangerous this job is," Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said during a news conference in front of Engine Company 46 in the Pimlico neighborhood. "Everyone has to do their part."

On Feb. 9, Racheal M. Wilson, 29, was fatally injured when she and other recruits were sent into an abandoned rowhouse that had been set ablaze. An investigation into her death revealed that the training exercise was riddled with safety violations and highlighted irregular training activities at the fire training academy.

On Feb. 22, Mayor Sheila Dixon fired the head of the academy and accused firefighters of abiding by an unwritten code that contributed to Wilson's death. She pointed out that 19 experienced firefighters were present during the bungled exercise.

"Nobody said anything, and maybe if someone had, Racheal Wilson would be alive today," Dixon said.

Some firefighters say they are not encouraged to question authority and must follow orders or face harsh penalties such as loss of pay.

Goodwin - whose ouster was called for by union members recently and was the subject of a second vote for which ballots are being counted - took steps yesterday to reassure firefighters that those days are over. He said he wanted to make it clear that the department's new culture will focus on safety first.


"Look at it as a sort of re-education," said Goodwin, noting that although firefighters learn safety procedures, they sometimes cut corners in their effort to aggressively attack blazes and save property and lives.

There is also a certain machismo about being a firefighter that works against safety precautions, Goodwin and other administrators said.

Some firefighters consider it a badge of honor to wear badly worn gear and battered helmets into a fire because it shows they are not rookies. But even a small tear in a sleeve can cause trouble, Goodwin noted, adding that he and other officials are forcing firefighters to have gear cleaned and repaired more frequently.

"There is this attitude of `It won't happen to me,'" Goodwin said.

Union officials said they are pleased that Goodwin wants to protect them from death and injury, but they questioned the chief's sincerity and the timing of the announcement, which he made on the day that the second union vote was concluded.

They said the department's administration has been loath to replace old and unsafe firetrucks and to upgrade exhaust fans in station houses that remove unhealthful diesel fumes.

Challenge to chief

"We welcome the chief's sudden interest in safety," said Bob Sledgeski, secretary treasurer of Baltimore Fire Fighters Local 734. "But I would challenge him to go back and look at the minutes from the joint labor management safety and health committee. It would be nice if he would attend those meetings."

Sledgeski and other union members accused the department of failing to act quickly enough to provide internal documents to state officials who are investigating Wilson's death. They said the officials might recommend new safety policies that could further protect firefighters.

"If something was done unsafe on that fire, it's probably still being done today," Sledgeski said.

Reports on the causes of the deaths of Wilson and veteran firefighter Allan M. Roberts, who was killed in a blaze in October, are in the works, a Fire Department spokesman said.

A draft report on Roberts' death that was provided to The Sun recently said mistakes and safety violations contributed to his death.

Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Fire Department, said it took the city longer than expected to retrieve some documents but that there was no intentional delay. All but a few requested items were sent Friday to the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health program, which is reviewing the incident, he said, and the rest will be sent today.

"There was no sinister delay," Binetti said. "We didn't drag our feet on anything."

Questioned about past lapses, fire officials who attended the news conference said they wanted to focus on safety instead. "Our goal is safety," said Division Chief Reginald L. Session, who heads the safety division. "Everyone goes home."

Rick Schluderberg, president of the firefighters union, said Goodwin's safety push could be difficult to implement, especially given the paramilitary nature of the department, with subordinates not expected to talk back or challenge authority figures.

"That would be a very big culture change," Schluderberg said of Goodwin's safety proposal. "You would almost be looked upon as a coward" for raising questions about safety at the scene of a fire, the union official said.

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