Goodwin: It's time for bit of `fresh air'

November 20, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Even by the standards of his field, Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. has lived close to the flame. In recent years, though, the fires he's had to fight have been largely political ones.

But like the veteran, third-generation firefighter that he is, he seemed to have a knack for surviving even those.

There was the scandal in 2004 when the department fielded an all-white recruit class for the first time in 50 years. Then-Mayor Martin O'Malley reprimanded Goodwin and demanded changes, but kept him on.

Then there was the death of cadet Racheal Wilson during a woefully flawed training accident in February, which would lead to multiple investigations that faulted the department for lax training standards and multiple safety violations. Three fire officials would be fired, but Goodwin remained in office.

Given his asbestos-like ability to escape the heat - he spent most of the summer resisting calls for his resignation from the firefighters unions and various mayoral candidates - it came as something of a surprise when Goodwin announced last week that he would resign at the end of the year.

Why now?

Goodwin, 52, isn't easy to read. What has made him an effective public face for the department over the years - he drew plaudits in particular for his compassionate, stoic demeanor during the 2004 water taxi disaster - is what also makes him something of a cipher in a one-on-one conversation about himself. In other words, he stays on message, he isn't given to surprise revelations or sudden unveilings of private thoughts.

Goodwin said yesterday that he believed if he remained in office, Wilson's death would continue to hover over the department, overshadowing everything else. He said that no matter what he has announced in recent months - a new homeland security grant, for example, or the acquisition of a new fireboat - news reports tended to add an "earlier this year" note about Wilson's death.

"It seemed as though every time something came up, [it] got attached," Goodwin said in an interview in his office at the Fire Department's downtown headquarters. "You get to the point where you feel it might be a distraction. You really can't afford a distraction.

"I think it's at a point where it probably would be better, at least for a breath of fresh air, to move on," he said.

It's been a "trying year," Goodwin said, but he believes the department is now "in a good place."

"I know people like to throw the blame around. I look at it as my responsibility to make things right. None of us can be with each of our employees 24 hours a day," he said. "When something happens, handle it. Be open and transparent. That's what I owed the families and the department and myself."

Initial news reports suggested that Goodwin resigned because of his wife's illness - she suffers from trigeminal neuralgia, an extremely painful nerve disorder. Yesterday, though, he downplayed that, saying he intends to either seek other work or pursue his education after he leaves the department.

Still, he said, the medical struggles of his wife of 26 years, Anita, do weigh on his mind, particularly since she experienced complications that led doctors to halt a neurosurgical procedure that she was about to undergo last month. "She's a trouper," he said, "just like me."

All he's ever wanted to be is a firefighter, like his father.

"Sometimes he would ride by the house when he was responding, and I would wave to him," Goodwin said of his father and his childhood in Canton. "I was the proudest kid in the neighborhood."

His father served, coincidentally enough, 32 years in the department - just as Goodwin has done (although by his Dec. 31 resignation it actually will be 33 years). And Goodwin the younger is far beyond the firetruck-riding phase of his career, having risen through the ranks to become chief, picked up credentials like a master's in management at Johns Hopkins and attended seminars from Harvard to Israel.

"You join this job to do what we do in the field - riding a firetruck, which is exhilarating," he said. "I'm born and raised here. I just wanted to grow up and ride firetrucks like my dad. Then you learn there's a whole world out there, and a lot of great ideas."

Goodwin said he's not sure what he'll do next. He toys with the idea of going to law school - he thinks he could help his fellow fire chiefs handle their challenges more effectively if he were a lawyer. He's always wanted to work on a Ph.D. He says some expect him to go into homeland security, given his post-9/11 experience in that area.

One thing is definite: After he leaves the department, he plans to unplug the Fire Department radio that he would use at home to listen in on calls his people were responding to.

"That," he said, "would be too painful."

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