City's fire chief resigns

Goodwin's past year has been marred by death of cadet, calls for reform in agency

November 14, 2007|By John Fritze and Sumathi Reddy | John Fritze and Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporters

Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., hailed for his early leadership but increasingly under pressure after a fatal training accident this year, has resigned, Mayor Sheila Dixon announced yesterday.

Goodwin - a third-generation firefighter who has served as chief since 2002 - formally resigned yesterday afternoon, ending months of speculation over whether he would lose his job in the wake of the death Feb. 9 of Cadet Racheal M. Wilson.

Goodwin's resignation was the most recent in a stream of high-level departures from the Dixon administration. Most notably, the mayor asked then-Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm to step down in July.

"On behalf of the citizens, I want to thank [Goodwin] for his years of sacrifice and commitment over an extraordinarily long and successful career," Dixon said in a statement.

"The last year has been difficult for the department, and Chief Goodwin has provided the steady and consistent hand that was needed."

Though Goodwin will continue to lead the department until the end of the year, Dixon said she would immediately begin a national search to fill the post.

Dixon aides characterized Goodwin's departure as a retirement and said the mayor did not ask him to leave.

Despite long speculation that Goodwin would be fired, the mayor repeatedly indicated that she had confidence in him and argued that he had taken immediate action to correct mistakes that contributed to Wilson's death.

Wilson, 29, a mother of two, was fatally injured in a Southwest Baltimore rowhouse during a live burn exercise that investigators discovered violated dozens of national safety standards. Three midlevel department commanders were fired, but many of Goodwin's critics said that a broader culture of change was needed - from the top down.

"There is a god," Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the fire officers union, said after learning of Goodwin's resignation. "The Racheal Wilson death was just the final straw where there was no turning back."

A Dixon spokesman denied any connection between Wilson's death and Goodwin's resignation.

Goodwin - whose resignation came a week after voters elected Dixon to a new term with an overwhelming majority in the general election - declined to answer questions.

Goodwin, 52, joined the department in 1975 and earned acclaim in July 2001 when, as a commander, he was the first firefighter to enter the raging fire inside the downtown Howard Street CSX train tunnel. When firefighters found their oxygen tanks inadequate, Goodwin quickly found more sophisticated respirators.

He was elevated to the department's top position in 2002 by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley and was applauded for his handling of a water taxi accident off Fort McHenry in 2004 that killed five people.

A straight-talker, Goodwin became the public face and voice of the city, standing vigil as rescue divers worked to recover the bodies.

Goodwin also became Baltimore's point man on homeland security and emergency preparedness after Sept. 11, burnishing the city's reputation as a leader in security preparation.

In 2005, he assembled a contingent of more than 100 firefight- ers, police and other personnel that went to Louisiana to assist in relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina.

But he ran into trouble with the union after attempting to tinker with how rank-and-file members were compensated when called in to work.

In 2006, Allan M. Roberts, a 19-year veteran, was killed after he entered a burning Greektown rowhouse with two other firefighters - a death that was blamed partly on communications problems.

The department was criticized several years ago for having an all-white recruit class, but after instituting a revamped admissions policy, it trumpeted its recruitment of diverse firefighters.

This year, the department was the subject of an internal investigation of an off-the-books account that was used to purchase fire equipment, circumventing the city's purchasing requirements.

Both Fire Department unions have held multiple no-confidence votes on Goodwin's leadership this year. Richard G. Schluderberg, president of Fire Fighters Union Local 734, said his membership will be pleased with the news that Goodwin is leaving.

"Now we can start to heal," he said.

A Fire Department spokesman released a lengthy statement detailing Goodwin's accomplishments and his handling of the various controversies that have beset the department in the past year.

"Over the last several months, Chief Goodwin has worked tirelessly to make sure that every fact surrounding these tragedies was unearthed, brought to light, and studied in order that the department institutionalizes the lessons which will prevent future tragedies," the statement read.

"He has handled these events with transparency, integrity, and compassion, and has shown a strong commitment to reforming department operations where necessary."

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