The Baltimore Fire Department is making sweeping changes in its academy and safety office, increasing the staff in both divisions, after a training exercise that killed a recruit. The changes are occurring even as an independent investigation ordered by the mayor into the agency's practices continues.
The department has shifted 13 firefighters from the field to the academy, replacing three senior staff members who have retired since the fatal fire on Feb. 9. With the firing of the academy chief and the suspensions of two others, the changes represent a wholesale turnover in the academy's fire suppression staff.
City officials also say they have secured an $80,000 grant to purchase radios - equipment that one instructor at the fatal burn did not have - beefed up the department's safety division and delayed by a month the current class's graduation.
On a tour yesterday of the academy grounds off Pulaski Highway, new staff members showed off what they called a series of improvements since Racheal M. Wilson died in a live-fire exercise in a rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore, a fire that did not conform to three dozen national safety guidelines.
"We're trying to move it forward," said Chief Joe Brocato, who was chosen to lead the training academy. "Unfortunately, for no fault of ours, it has been stuck in the '70s because of the limits we've had with staffing." Brocato also leads the homeland security division.
The recruits in Wilson's Class 19 have taken notice. "Now every time you turn, you can't help but bump into an instructor," said Shanntel Wilkins, 29, while taking a short break from an exercise in which she was helping to put out a fire in a minivan on the training grounds.
The safety office, a group that is separate from the academy, is also undergoing a major overhaul. Chief Reginald Sessions is taking command and adding six to 10 people who will be charged with inspecting firehouses and fire equipment and going to additional emergency calls to ensure that firefighters are conforming to safety guidelines as they battle blazes.
Safety officers will now speed to emergency calls before they are confirmed as burns. "When we get there, a ladder is usually already on the fire," said Sessions. "There is a lot of activity and action that has already occurred that we haven't had a chance to see."
The safety office will also send staff to training academy burns. "You can never have too many eyes watching for the what ifs," Sessions said.
Chief William Jones, who was the department's safety officer on the day of the fatal training exercise, was effectively demoted and ordered to report to Sessions rather than Deputy Chief Theodore Saunders.
The fire unions offered measured support for the changes. Bob Sledgeski, the secretary and treasurer of the Baltimore Fire Fighters Local 734, said many of the new instructors have good reputations fighting fires, but he had some concerns with the changes to the safety office.
"They can increase the safety office all they want, but if they don't have the jurisdiction to do something, don't bother," he said, adding that safety officers must feel that they can overrule a fire chief at a blaze if they see a potential problem.
Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers union, said that he has a good relationship with Brocato, the new academy head. "I would say you couldn't find a more quality guy; he bleeds fire service."
It is not clear whether the staff increase will be permanent, but academy instructors and union officials noted that the class sizes have doubled since the 1970s and 1980s, while the staff size has essentially remained the same.
Brocato said he has an ambitious long-term plan for the academy. Although his ideas still need to be approved by the chief, he said he wants to bring the homeland security division, research and development, and the special operations command under the academy's roof.
A white board in his new office included a sketch of the new organizational chart and a list of things to do. The word "fence" is on the list. He wants to build one to help secure the academy grounds. Another white board in a staff room shows plans for each class several days out.
"It makes the communications easier," he said.
The current academy class will graduate a full month behind schedule, which will cost the fire department since it will have to pay overtime to current firefighters while waiting for the new recruits to start in the field.
The situation was unavoidable, Brocato said, since time was lost while the students prepared for Wilson's funeral and coped during the turnover in staff.
New staff members at the academy volunteered to be instructors, not considered a particularly desirable post. It involves more work with less pay because there is no opportunity to earn overtime. Brocato acknowledged that some sort of incentive would be needed to attract good instructors.
"Without instructors, there is no future," said Chief Karl Zimmerman, who is in charge of day-to-day operations at the academy. "You've got to see the bigger picture."
One key part of the new training philosophy is that recruits will no longer be permitted to practice putting out fires in city buildings off the academy grounds, such as was done when Wilson died. That means there is a new urgency to overhaul the existing burn building, which dates from 1955.
Academy officials want to add a third floor to the structure and are meeting with designers to figure out how to add more architectural elements that are found in city rowhouses, including a sloped roof and various sizes of windows.
"Ideally, we'd have a city block," Zimmerman said, but the cost of that might be prohibitive.
In the yard yesterday, instructors covered the recruits' eyes and told them to crawl into the two-story burn-building. The interior is charred; it is been lit on fire countless times, and chunks of concrete are missing. The pair of recruits had to search for a "victim" - a mannequin.
Nearby, a different set of recruits practiced extinguishing a fire set in a minivan. The vehicle's gas tank had been removed for the exercise and wooden pallets were stuffed in the back. A propane hose led to the van, and an instructor could literally turn the fire on and off.
Two teams of recruits attacked each fire. Each group grasped a charged hose, or "pipe," and waited until orange flames enveloped the van. "I'm not scared!" one trainee yelled.
Each team was closely supervised by an instructor, there was an ambulance on hand and a third team waited with a hose in case something went wrong. During the fatal training exercise on Feb. 9, an investigation found that there were not enough instructors and the back-up team did not have proper equipment or a hose charged with water.
At the academy yesterday, instructors communicated face to face with students, but all of them are outfitted with new radios on loan from a state task force until 24 new ones purchased with homeland security money arrive.
Brocato said that when he arrived at the training academy at the end of February there were only five radios: "Some equipment was missing, and there was some things we had to track down."
In the middle of the afternoon, students lined up in an auditorium three deep for a roll call. One instructor, an Iraq war veteran, yelled out: "Everyone happy to be here?"
"Yes, sir," was the response.
Later, Wilkins, the recruit, said: "People are starting to get the trust back with the instructors."
Changes in the fire department
Assigned 14 new staff members to the training academy, an overall increase of eight positions
Secured $80,000 in federal money to purchase 24 new radios for training academy
Doubled the size of department's safety office by adding eight to 10 new positions
Arranged for safety officers to respond faster and to more emergency calls