The Baltimore Fire Department, in part to cut overtime expenses, has removed the independent safety officer who had been assigned to the training academy in the wake of an exercise last year that killed a recruit and violated 50 safety standards.
Department officials said there are five instructors at the academy who are certified to act as safety officers to monitor training exercises.
But all are within the training academy's chain of command; the reassigned safety officer had answered to an outside commander, giving him an independent voice that state workplace regulators had agreed was important for ensuring that rules are enforced.
Acting Fire Chief Gregory B. Ward said yesterday that the personnel shift is an expression of confidence in the training academy staff -- which was overhauled after the exercise that killed Racheal M. Wilson on Feb. 9, 2007. Increased training and oversight have "led me to be comfortable enough that the academy can handle safety on their own," he said. "I'm real comfortable with where safety is now."
Leaders of the two fire unions, which are beginning contract negotiations this week with the city, reacted with outrage and cynicism. Some members said the move proves that the city is not willing to pay for adequate safety; others suggested that the changes were done for show in the first place and not really needed.
"They flooded the academy with staff to get all of the regulators off their back," said Bob Sledgeski, the secretary and treasurer of the firefighters union. "Now that things have quieted down there, they are slowly eroding the staffing out there and putting people at risk all over again."
The fatal training exercise, in which instructors set numerous fires inside a vacant rowhouse on South Calverton Road, was the subject of three investigations, culminating in a 121-page report commissioned by Mayor Sheila Dixon.
The report criticized the Fire Department for not having a dedicated on-scene safety officer at the fire ground -- the person in the role that day was Chief Kenneth Hyde, who was also the head of the training academy and had played a significant part in setting up the exercise.
The safety officer's sole responsibility is to ensure that corners are not cut at the scene of a fire and can overrule the top on-scene commander. The mayor fired Hyde; two other fire officers who were instructors that day have since lost their jobs.
Dixon's investigation revealed that instructors set too many fires inside the abandoned rowhouse in an attempt to create real-life fire conditions for the recruits. Instructors failed to have water ready in the hoses of firefighters assigned to help should something go wrong.
It also found that Wilson had been sent into a burning building with an inexperienced instructor who did not have a radio, wearing old protective pants with holes that frayed in the heat. She was ordered to climb above fires before putting them out and became trapped at a third-floor window when flames below raged out of control.
Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for Dixon, confirmed that City Hall officials had asked public safety agencies to reduce spending but said they did not set specific targets.
Clifford said Dixon is sensitive to safety matters at the Fire Department's training academy -- Wilson's death was the first public safety crisis in her tenure.
"She is absolutely not going to put another family though that," Clifford said. "She will not compromise safety at the fire academy. We would not allow the Fire Department to make a cut that did that."
In June, the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation cited the department for 17 state violations. In response, department commanders sent the agency a letter and a memo written by Ward, then deputy chief of operations, that stated: "A Baltimore City Safety Officer will be assigned to the Fire Academy and must preview all plans for live burning."
Ward said that when he wrote the memo he did not envision that the safety officer would be permanently detailed to the academy. There are days when the academy classes are not doing burn-related exercises, he said, and having a person there seemed wasteful.
He added that there has been recent pressure from City Hall to reduce costs, but the savings from this single position were not significant: "I'm never going to compromise safety because of cost."
But Sledgeski, with the firefighters union, said an independent safety officer is important: "Sometimes it takes a set of outside eyes to look at it and make sure it is OK."
Sledgeski said he has faith in the current staff at the academy, but he warned that asking instructors to play more than one role can invite problems. "You need to have a set of neutral eyes looking at something when someone else sets it up," he said.
Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, the head of the union that represents fire officers, was less concerned about the change, saying that he does not believe that a dedicated safety officer was ever needed there. He said he believed that the initial move of personnel to the academy was "for show" and not about function.
Chief Joseph V. Brocato, who took over at the training academy after Hyde was ousted, said yesterday that cadets no longer do live burns there. They used to use a building specially meant to be set on fire -- but that building, which was built in 1955, has been deemed structurally unsound. Instead, he said, cadets use facilities in Baltimore County or at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute in Aberdeen.
When those burns occur, he said, there is always an independent safety officer present from the host jurisdiction.
"The loss of the safety officer doesn't trouble me," said Brocato. "If it did, I would be raising all kinds of hell."