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City halts training exercise

Baltimore fire officials agreed yesterday to stop igniting city buildings for training - a practice rarely used in large Northeastern cities because it is widely considered unsafe - until an investigation into the death of a cadet is complete.

A Fire Department spokesman also said that other training practices will be re-examined to avoid further tragedies. The cadet, Racheal Wilson, 29, died Friday in a fire set by her instructors in a vacant rowhouse on South Calverton Road that was in a block slated for demolition.

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Fire commanders defend using live-fire drills in city dwellings, saying there is no better way to simulate the dangers of battling a blaze in the confines of a narrow Baltimore rowhouse. But most major Northern cities restrict live-fire exercises to their training grounds, saying the fires can be too unpredictable and the experience not worth the risks.

"We believe it's a great deal safer to do it in a controlled environment and a structure designed for that," said Capt. Jesse Wilson, an operations officer at the Philadelphia Fire Academy.

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"As a matter of fact, I was shocked when I heard, because I don't know of any big city metro department that still did that. I thought it was a small-town kind of thing. It's very rare for an East Coast fire department to do that kind of thing."

A survey of departments showed that training fires in what are called "acquired structures" are not done in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and Detroit. The practice is effectively banned in New Jersey because environmental permitting is so strict.

The director of training for the city department is Division Chief Kenneth Hyde Sr., who also runs the volunteer department in Riviera Beach in Anne Arundel County.

Volunteer departments often use vacant houses for fire drills as they typically do not have training facilities.

Questions still remained yesterday as to how Wilson died. She was one of 24 recruits participating in the exercise and was on the third floor with two other trainees responsible for knocking holes to ventilate the building. A fire had been set on the second floor.

Wilson collapsed about noon and died at Maryland Shock Trauma Center. A cause of death has not been determined and information about funeral services was incomplete yesterday.

City Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. has said that a safety official was present, a second fire hose was manned by an instructor and several experienced firefighters were there to help cadets who ran into difficulty.

Two people were injured trying to rescue Wilson. Emergency vehicle driver Ryan Wenger, 30, and paramedic Stephanie Cisneros, 41, suffered burns and have been treated and released from Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

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Baltimore started training cadets with fires set in city dwellings in the 1970s, but the department also has a facility at its training complex off Pulaski Highway that includes a tower and other buildings.

Chief Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman, said that training in city-owned structures is valuable because Baltimore's narrow rowhouses present a firefighting challenge that cannot be reproduced at the training grounds.

"Can you image a 29-inch wide stairwell?" he said. "You go into a dwelling and the entry door is hanging by one hinge, cardboard or sheets are hanging up the walls [to cover holes]. Unfortunately, these are the conditions that we find sometimes."

Others also defended the practice, though viewed it as an exercise better suited to rural areas than in densely populated urban centers.

"It is a necessity," said Phil Welsh, director of the regional emergency services Training Center in North Carolina. "You've got to train like you're going to work. You don't want recruits to be killed, but on the same token you have to protect the citizens."

The National Fire Protection Association, an industry organization that creates standards adopted by many jurisdictions, including Baltimore, wrote protocols to address live burns after two firefighters died in a training exercise in 1982.

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Those standards, published in 1986, require that the building to be burned be patched before it is ignited so the fire won't easily pass from one floor to the next. The cost to shore up these buildings is prohibitive for some departments.

The regulations also require that one person on the scene of the fire must act as the safety officer, whose job it is to ensure proper procedures are followed. That individual can have no other job.

Baltimore fire officials said that Hyde, the director of the Fire Academy, was at the drill in which Wilson was killed, but was acting as the safety officer. Officials said yesterday that Lt. Joe Crest was in charge of the training exercise.

Standards have become tougher in the past 20 years and have evolved after firefighters died in burns around the country.

Gary Tokle, an official with the National Protection Association who helps write the standards, said that setting a fire off training sites makes more sense in less-populated areas.

"It tends to happen more in rural areas where you have a building off to yourself," Tokle said.

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The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said that at least four firefighters have been killed since 2000 in burns of acquired buildings. The National Fire Protection Association reported that 14 recruits died in live fires from 1996 to 2005 but did not distinguish between fires set on and off academy grounds.

The Newark (N.J.) Fire Department stopped doing live burns after a fire in 1981 where several people were nearly killed.

"The fire got away from us. The fire got much bigger than we expected," said Harry Carter, who was with the Newark department for 26 years, served as a battalion chief there before retiring. He now writes articles on fire safety.

"I'm gun-shy about going out and burning a house," he said. "It is tough enough to burn a building that you built up from the ground. I prefer to have greater control over the safety aspects."

In Boston, the department uses vacant buildings acquired by the city to conduct training in "overhaul techniques," such as cutting holes in floors and ceilings, removing door frames and windows, but not for live-fire training, said department spokesman Steve MacDonald.

The Boston department's recruits are trained in fighting fires at its city and state training academies. "We've never really looked at setting [the acquired buildings] on fire," MacDonald said. "Boston, of course, has very congested neighborhoods, so we just look at them to do the overhaul in real construction. At least for us, that seems to work."

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Detroit doesn't have its own training facility, and officials don't light fires in city dwellings. Instead, an official there said that after graduating from the academy, recruits spend a year paired with experienced firefighters and respond to real emergencies before earning a badge.

"Detroit firefighters get plenty of opportunities to practice fighting fires, unfortunately," said Capt. Carl Hollier, who works in the training division.

In Washington, firefighters don't set fires because houses are too close together. "Ideally what you want is a single-family home in a rural or at least an area that is isolated," said Tony Dorsey, a spokesman.

He added that the real estate in Washington is so valuable that it would not be economically feasible to burn houses.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Nicole Fuller contributed to this article.


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