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Tragedy imperils sterling image

The Baltimore City fire exercise that killed a cadet had another potential casualty: the reputation of one of the nation's most highly regarded departments, its heroic image captured in real-life and fictional accounts.

Now the department revered for rescue operations such as the 2004 water taxi accident and immortalized in the movie Ladder 49 finds itself in turmoil, its normally insular world vulnerable and exposed.

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As the investigation into the fatal Feb. 9 fire brings in a review from the outside, the city Fire Department is emerging from two difficult weeks.

Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., an expert in homeland security issues, nearly lost his job.

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Battalion Chief Kenneth Hyde Sr., head of the city's training academy and a friend of Goodwin's, was fired Thursday. Two other fire officers involved in the training exercise remain suspended without pay.

Meanwhile, a preliminary report into the fire on South Calverton Road that killed recruit Racheal M. Wilson depicts a training exercise fraught with flagrant violations of three dozen national regulations, and little oversight.

"There were some pretty incredible errors made, and somebody paid with their life," Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers union, said in an interview last week.

"We like to hold ourselves up as one of the best departments in the country, we compare ourselves to Boston, Chicago, New York - to have a recruit killed in training is the kind of thing that happens in Iowa, in rural America," he added. "It is not the kind of thing that should happen in a major metropolitan area."

But fire chiefs and experts across the nation say that while the episode places a black mark on a department with a fine reputation, they do not expect it will affect the accreditation of its training academy or lower recruitment numbers.

"If they didn't handle it properly and weren't taking action, that's a possibility," said Steven T. Edwards, director of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute and the former chief of the Prince George's County Fire Department. "But in this case, they've admitted what was wrong and they're reviewing their entire system to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Since 2000, more than a dozen firefighters or trainees across the nation have been killed annually in or because of training exercises, Edwards said.

"The nation's fire service should be embarrassed that so many fatalities occur in training," Edwards said. "I'm aware of no other occupation where they have such a high number of fatalities in training.

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"It's not just Baltimore City," he added. "It's a nationwide problem."

The Baltimore Fire Department, with 1,700 members, is known as a fierce and aggressive force, trained to fight quickly moving rowhouse fires from the interior, rather than from the outside.

It's a tactic that can be viewed as risky but is essential to prevent fires from spreading along the common attics that the city's rowhouses share, avoiding the destruction of an entire block.

"You talk about New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia - they're all noted for being inside firefighters," said Peter J. O'Connor, chief of the city department in the 1980s. "They go in and attack the fire. They don't just stand outside and pour water in."

In 2001, eight firefighters were injured, one of them critically, in an East Baltimore blaze after the floor collapsed in a burning vacant building.

Though the department briefly toyed with changing its policy, it never did.

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Today, the department is respected for its successful recruitment of diverse firefighters, a result of a revamped admissions policy after it was criticized for an all-white class several years ago.

During the subsequent recruitment process, in 2004, the department doubled the number of people who came in to take the admissions test, according to statistics provided by Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the city Fire Department.

The current class of recruits - of which Wilson was a member - had the highest number of women in the department's history.

"Baltimore has always been on the progressive side of our service, leadership and change," said Kelvin J. Cochran, chief of the Shreveport Fire Department in Louisiana and second vice president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. "They're kind of a good model organization of progress and change."

Cochran said the Baltimore department's graceful handling of two high-profile events - the 2001 Howard Street tunnel fire and the 2004 water taxi capsizing - propelled its leaders onto the international stage.

"Those two events were evaluated on a national and even an international scale," he said. "The leadership demonstrated by the incident commanders and Chief Goodwin made for the best possible outcome in both those situations."

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Firefighting officials around the country expressed confidence last week in the ability of Goodwin, a man known for producing swift results.

As a shift commander, he was the first firefighter to enter the raging Howard Street tunnel train fire.

He was the public face of the city during the water taxi incident. His image was beamed across the nation as he led rescuers in their efforts to recover the victims.

"In my 28 years, we've never left anybody behind," Goodwin said in a news article at the time. "We've never had an unsuccessful mission. Protracted incidents are not our style. We're known as an aggressive department."

In more recent years, Goodwin's reputation has been built as former Mayor Martin O'Malley's point man for homeland security and emergency preparedness.

When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Goodwin emerged as a leader ready to send his men to New Orleans to help.

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When this month's fatal training exercise was unfolding, Goodwin was in Israel on a homeland security-related trip.

The problem was that while Goodwin was nearly halfway around the world, his department was - without his knowledge, he has said - violating countless National Fire Protection Association standards in a training exercise.

In the preliminary report released Friday by the Baltimore City Fire Marshal's Office, a picture emerged of a hastily prepared training exercise in which cadets and instructors were ill-prepared on nearly every count.

Among the violations: seven fires were set, when regulations call for no more than one; cadets were not walked through the building; and there was a lack of adequate safety personnel, radio communications and water.

None of this followed department protocol.

"You have policies and procedures, and they are worthless unless they are followed," Edwards said. "It is a big department. The chief can not directly supervise everything."

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Edwards said the department's reputation will be determined by its actions during the next few weeks. "Anytime you have something like this, it does hurt the department to a degree, and the reputation. The thing now is: What are they going to do about it?"

Edwards noted that two weeks before the incident, the board that accredits Maryland fire departments visited the Baltimore facility, a step they take every three years. "During that visit, they had to attest to the fact that they followed NFPA standards," Edwards said.

Though a suspension of accreditation is a possibility, Edwards said he is doubtful that will occur because of a single episode.

If a department's accreditation were lost or suspended, it would not be able to train its firefighters to national standards, Edwards said. That would require finding another training facility, a tall order for such a large department.

While most chiefs and experts said Goodwin should not be blamed for the incident, Harry Carter, a municipal fire protection consultant and former head of the Newark, N.J., fire training academy, said he was shocked that live burns would be set without the chief's knowledge.

"I find troubling the disconnect between training and fire chief," he said. "I would have never entertained doing anything without the permission of the boss."

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Most officials said the real test will be how the department handles the aftermath. "Disasters tend to shine a light on what we already are," said David Daniels, chair of the International Association of Fire Chiefs safety, health and survival section. "So if things are going well, the crisis tends to bring us together. If things are not going well, the crisis sometimes drives us apart. All that remains to be seen."

Henry Burris, president of the Vulcan Blazers, a city organization of predominantly African-American active and retired firefighters, said the damage of the incident is widespread.

"This has traumatized the entire department," said Burris, a retired firefighter and EMS employee. "It has emotionally affected every person in the Fire Department.

"It is not a time now to point fingers of blame. It is time to rectify a practice that went wrong ... so that this will never happen again."

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

annie.linskey@baltsun.com


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