Safety first

May 10, 2007

If the Baltimore Fire Department has to "re-educate" its firefighters to ensure that they put safety first, something is seriously wrong.

Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. says the department needs a cultural make-over so the rank and file feel comfortable challenging their supervisors on matters of safety. This is the chief's latest response to safety violations found at the scenes of two department deaths, including a Feb. 9 training accident in which a 29-year-old cadet was fatally injured. Despite the presence of veteran firefighters that day, numerous training safety rules were violated.

"Look at it as a sort of re-education," the chief said this week, explaining that loyalties run deep in a paramilitary organization and sometimes bravado can substitute for a rigorous adherence to safety.

"Re-education" sounds ominously like something out of Maoist China. But where Mao Tse-tung punished dissent, Chief Goodwin is asking his firefighters to speak up if something is amiss. But that's what they should be doing now; it's called acting responsibly.

A house on fire can be a dangerous place, and a disregard of national safety standards and practices can get someone killed, whether it's a firefighter or the person being rescued from a burning building. Indifference - to equipment in disrepair or a supervisor's incompetence - is unacceptable and should not be tolerated.

But Chief Goodwin is a product of the department, a veteran of 32 years who has served the last five as its chief, and if it took him this long to realize the agency needs a cultural course correction, the problem surely must run deep.

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