Baltimore Fire Department plans fitness program

December 19, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Responding to a federal report on the death of a fire cadet, Baltimore Fire Chief James Clack said the department has no plans to resume training exercises in vacant structures and will pursue physical fitness programs for its members and cadets. But a union official cautioned that cutbacks at the Fire Department could present new safety problems.

The report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is the most recent to examine the death of cadet Racheal M. Wilson, who died in February 2007 when she was trapped in a rowhouse that had been set on fire for a training exercise. Many of the changes recommended in the audit have been implemented, Clack said.

"As professional firefighters, this report gives us another opportunity to remember what happened that day and, more importantly, to learn from it," Clack said. "Our goal must be to never experience the death of another one of our members in training."

Division Chief Joseph Brocato said "live-burn" exercises in vacant rowhouses were not typical for the department even before Wilson's death. The department has a training facility on Pulaski Highway for such exercises, but it is in need of major improvements. The department now sends recruits to a state-of-the-art facility at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

"We want to train our folks in a controlled, safe environment, still giving them the skills and the exposure to our profession and the dangers and things they need to know, but do it in a safe manner," Clack said.

He said the department is working to implement new fitness standards and programs for firefighters, including the nationally recognized Candidate Physical Ability Test program. Wilson had failed agility tests.

Bob Sledgeski, president of the Baltimore Fire Fighters Local 734, said the unions have been pushing for a fitness and wellness program for years. But he said he wonders how the city can afford the program. He said cutbacks are stretching the department to the limit and that many staffing improvements made at the fire academy after Wilson's death have been rescinded amid the budget squeeze.

"It's time for this city to give us the funding we need, or we will have more Racheal Wilsons or injured or dead civilians, and none of us wants that," Sledgeski said.

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