Compounding Failure

Our View: A Fire Cadet Dies Tragically In A Poorly Supervised Training Exercise, And Now Missing Paperwork May Cause Her Children To Be Harmed Too

November 06, 2009

Just as the Baltimore Fire Department failed Racheal M. Wilson in life, now it has failed her in death. A dispute between the city and the U.S. Justice Department over little more than paperwork could cause her two children to be denied the nearly $300,000 death benefit they are due.

For those who may already have forgotten about Ms. Wilson (as perhaps city officials have), she was the recruit who died in a training exercise performed in a burning rowhouse two years ago. Overcome by the heat and smoke, she couldn't climb out of a window to escape. A subsequent investigation revealed that adequate safety precautions had not been taken and that the cadet had not been prepared for such physical demands and perhaps shouldn't have been accepted as a firefighter recruit at all.

The incident led to the firing of the fire academy's director and two other officers in the training-safety division. Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. also left the department not long after - saying a "fresh start" was necessary so that Ms. Wilson's death would not hover over the department.

Apparently, it has not hovered enough.

In the city police department, the term "red ball" is used to denote a homicide investigation that should take the highest priority. Everything associated with Racheal Wilson's death should have been a red ball for the fire department.

Mayor Sheila Dixon was quick to shift blame to Mr. Goodwin, but the e-mail sent to Fire Chief James S. Clack last week suggests the Justice Department has been seeking information in recent months from the department and "nothing responsive has been received."

Chief Clack said yesterday that he is doing everything he can to prove Ms. Wilson was a paid firefighter acting in the line of duty, as eligibility requires, and questioned whether federal authorities may be more to blame for the adverse ruling.

No doubt Chief Clack, Mayor Dixon and other officials can find other excuses, but it's hard to believe any of them might be adequate. No matter how disorganized administrative records might be, how many staff have been lost to budget cutbacks during the recession, or how disagreeable the federal bureaucracy often is, looking out for Ms. Wilson's family should have been a top priority, perhaps even the top priority.

Mayor Dixon says she will ask Maryland's congressional delegation to intervene, and a Justice Department spokeswoman has also pointed out that the denial is not a "final determination." But what the mayor really should have said was that no matter what happens, the Wilson children will get their money even if it has to come out of the collective salaries of every city employee who screwed up the claim.

This situation demands not only restitution but accountability. Mayor Dixon was on hand this week when a statue of former Mayor William Donald Schaefer was unveiled in the Inner Harbor. She might ask herself, "What would William Donald Schaefer do" if confronted with such a mess?

Our guess: He would have gone ballistic and shaken up the bureaucracy. Indeed, it's hard to believe such a disaster would have been allowed to happen in the first place. The "Do it now" mayor would have been apoplectic if the children didn't receive the money that's rightfully theirs.

Accepting responsibility and pushing, pushing, pushing for the city to get things done - that's what gets mayors hailed as city saviors. Right now, what's needed is simply for someone to help the children of a woman who died on this mayor's watch.

Readers respond

Fire Chief Clack has appointed his deputy chief for training, Joe Brocato, the task of getting this fixed. It has become his No. 1 priority. We are hopeful that his efforts, along with those of the city fire union and members of Maryland's congressional delegation will bring resolution to this injustice. Seconds into that exercise, Racheal was no longer a rookie - she was a firefighter trying to protect her co-workers in a full-blown dwelling fire. Her family deserves that she have that recognition.

Bob Sledgeski, Baltimore

The writer is president of the city firefighters union.

Somewhere within the Baltimore City Fire Department someone was drawing a paycheck to ensure that these types of issues were taken care of in a timely fashion. Chances are that person was not a lowly firefighter, but rather someone more highly compensated, which reduces the acceptability of any forthcoming excuses. Every member of the Fire Department should be outraged at this failure. If this can happen to Racheal Wilson's kids, it can happen to yours.

IDebunk

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