Chief backs fire dept.

Goodwin responds to report on death

Dixon says she has `strong questions'

Sun Follow-up

August 22, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun reporter

Baltimore's fire chief defended his beleaguered department yesterday after an independent investigation concluded that a recruit who was killed in a training exercise had been poorly trained and outfitted. But Mayor Sheila Dixon said her "confidence level" in the chief's leadership "is very questionable."

Dixon said she also had concerns about the judgments made by firefighters who were at the Feb. 9 fire in a vacant rowhouse on South Calverton Road that killed cadet Racheal M. Wilson and indicated more discipline could be meted out in the coming days. A top commander and two supervisors have already been fired.

When asked about the future of Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., Dixon said: "I have real strong questions at every level. I'll need to digest the report."

Goodwin, who escaped criticism in the independent report to be released tomorrow, which was obtained by The Sun, said he felt it was "thorough" but he disagreed with the finding that Wilson wasn't properly prepared to fight a live fire.

The chief distanced himself from decisions made by firefighters during back-to-back training exercises Feb. 8 and 9 - which the report criticized for violating national safety standards - saying they do not represent the department he has run for the past five years.

"It was not the department I was raised in, it is not the department I know," Goodwin said in an interview. He said an exercise should be a perfectly planned event - and one which can be canceled at any moment if a problem occurs. "Anything could have happened to that vacant house," he said. "It could have burned to the ground. There was no reason to go forward if everything isn't perfect."

Frustrated members of Wilson's family in Baltimore reacted with anger when they heard the details of the report from news accounts. "At this point now I'm so angry, that it is best not to say anything for now," said Priscilla Neal, the mother of Wilson's boyfriend. "Why would they send her in a burning building?"

Another branch of the family, in Denver, received the report from the mayor's office via e-mail early yesterday. They declined to comment.

The 121-page report, commissioned by Dixon and written by a Howard County deputy fire chief, criticizes virtually every aspect of the exercise and concludes that 50 safety standards were violated, including setting multiple fires when only one is allowed, failing to have adequate backup and failing to equip some of the recruits and instructors with radios.

City officials had said the exercise was fraught with problems, but the report due out tomorrow lists many new concerns.

It concludes that Wilson had failed agility tests and was not prepared to fight a live fire, and died when she became trapped on the third floor during a chaotic escape as the fire raged out of control. The report said her decade-old pants had holes and frayed in the intense heat and criticized instructors who it said abandoned her inside the dwelling.

The heads of the Fire Department's two unions, who did not have copies of the report yesterday, agreed that the department had failed Wilson but complained that undue blame was being placed on low-level firefighters who didn't have any way of knowing about training safety standards.

"The ultimate responsibility should lie with Goodwin," said Richard G. Schluderberg, the president of the Baltimore Fire Fighters Union. "I believe we are lucky that this didn't happen before if this is the type of training that was going on all along."

Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the fire officers' union, said accountability should not end with those who ran the exercise. "I'm disappointed but not surprised about the apparent exoneration of Goodwin," he said. "This thing could be written on Scott towels because he's washing his hands with it."

The report noted for the first time that fire commanders violated safety standards at a similar live burn Feb. 8 where recruits "burned the whole roof off" a vacant dwelling, according to an account from an interview with the then head of the training academy, Division Chief Kenneth Hyde, who was fired after the exercise.

It says that instructors at the fire academy allowed Wilson to progress despite reports that she had removed her air mask in exercises, had trouble controlling the nozzle of a hose and had experienced difficulty putting up ladders. "It is clear that she wasn't prepared," Dixon said at a news conference at City Hall yesterday. "It is very clear there was a breakdown in oversight."

Dixon focused on the actions of instructors and mid-level fire commanders who conducted the exercises. "What stood out [in the report] is you have experienced firefighters who made decisions and who were unprepared," the mayor said. "They should have led by example."

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