Firings urged in death of recruit

The Baltimore Sun

A Fire Department panel has recommended that two more city firefighters be dismissed from their jobs because of their roles in the Feb. 9 training burn in a Southwest Baltimore rowhouse that killed a recruit and injured two others.

One of the two, Lt. Barry Broyles, responded yesterday by saying that the Fire Department never followed safety standards during live burns and that it should not have hired the recruit who died.

Broyles and Lt. Joseph Crest have been suspended without pay since the February blaze that killed cadet Racheal M. Wilson, 29, a mother of two. Mayor Sheila Dixon fired Kenneth Hyde Sr., the chief of the Fire Academy, about two weeks after the fire.

Broyles and Crest appeared last week before a panel of their peers, who heard testimony and recommended termination, said Rick Binetti, a Fire Department spokesman.

Binetti said Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. usually accepts such recommendations but won't make a final decision until sometime next week.

Broyles, a 32-year veteran, said his actions do not merit dismissal, and he described himself as "flabbergasted."

Crest, who has been a member of the department for 26 years, said he accepts some responsibility for mistakes during the fire but does not think he should be fired.

Neither firefighter knew about the panel's recommendations until contacted by a reporter.

A preliminary investigation by the Fire Department found 36 violations of the National Fire Protection Association safety standards the department says it follows.

Instructors set seven fires during the training exercise, even though safety standards require that recruits fight only a single blaze. The house used in the drill had previously been ripped apart, making it more likely to burn out of control. Recruits were not familiar with the layout or exit routes. And not all of the instructors had radios.

Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the fire officers union, said yesterday that any move to dismiss members is premature.

"The investigation is not over yet," he said. "I don't know how you can pass judgment on these two members without the benefit of a complete report."

Mayor Sheila Dixon has asked Howard County Deputy Fire Chief Chris Shimer to lead an investigation of the fatal exercise and review the Baltimore department's safety and training standards. That report was to have been released in late March, but has been delayed at least until summer, according to Anthony McCarthy, the mayor's spokesman.

Meanwhile, Goodwin has embarked on an initiative to improve safety standards throughout the department. He brought in a new staff at the academy, beefed up the safety office and is planning to rotate all of his midlevel managers to new firehouses because he believes they've become too close to their employees and are not punishing safety lapses.

The fatal training exercise, and the public acrimony since then, have opened old wounds between the fire chief and the department's two unions. Both unions have held multiple no-confidence votes and have asked that he resign.

Dixon has refrained from giving her beleaguered chief an unreserved vote of confidence, often stating that she supports the process of change in the department. She has also said repeatedly that more firefighters could lose their jobs because of their roles in the fatal fire.

Although firefighters are barred by department rules from speaking to a reporter without permission, Broyles gave an on-the-record interview and said that the training exercise that killed Wilson was similar to the other live burns that he has helped run.

Wilson became trapped on the top floor of the three-story rowhouse by fires raging below and could not climb out a window because her boot was stuck in a hole in the floor, according to the preliminary report. Three firefighters tried unsuccessfully to pull her out, and she died of thermal injuries and asphyxiation.

Broyles said the department always set multiple fires during exercises - at least one on the first floor and one on the second.

"I have yet to see a live burn anywhere that followed 1403," Broyles said, referring to the national safety rule that governs such exercises. "If you are going to follow 1403 one hundred percent, you will send people out there who are not prepared to fight fire."

He also blamed what he called the Fire Department's lax hiring practices for allowing Wilson to join the department. "She should have never been hired in the first place," he said. "She worked in the fire marshal's office. She really wasn't cut out for the job."

Wilson's family has said that she always dreamed of being a firefighter and was in good physical condition.

"The bottom line is, she panicked, pulled her face piece off," Broyles said. "If she hadn't done that it would have been just another training day and things would have gone on."

The preliminary report confirmed that her face piece was removed, but does not say how that happened.

Fugate, the union president, attended the closed trial board meetings and said the evidence presented was consistent with Broyles' account. "Things were not done any differently that day than they were before," he said. "Maybe we dodged the bullet all the time before that."

He added: "Joe [Crest] made it very clear that they didn't do anything any differently that day than all of the live burns that he'd done previously."

Binetti, the department spokesman, denied that safety rules are regularly broken. "Thirty-six violations of a code is an anomaly," he said. "It was a bad situation. It is not how the Fire Department operates."

He expressed surprise about Broyles' remarks about the recruit's fitness to serve, but declined to comment.

Broyles was charged in April with incompetence, failing to pay attention to his duties, and failing to show good judgment and failing to follow department procedures, according to internal charging documents obtained by The Sun. The department also accused him of not having a charged hose line and not properly supervising his rescue squad.

Crest was charged with similar violations at the same time.

Fugate said he probably would appeal the case and reiterated his belief that Goodwin should step down.

"If it is going to trickle down, lets see it trickle up," Fugate said. "Please don't tell me that nobody else in the department hierarchy knew what was going on at the academy."

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