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Dixon planning more changes at fire agency

The Baltimore Sun

Mayor Sheila Dixon said yesterday that she plans to make additional changes in the leadership of the city's Fire Department after a state agency charged that the department made "willful" violations of safety standards during a fatal training exercise.

"There are a lot of changes that need to take place," she said. "Some of those changes have already begun."

On Tuesday, the state's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation concluded that the department had violated 33 safety standards during a live-burn training exercise in which a fire cadet was killed. The allegations - listed in a charging document obtained by The Sun - came after a five-month investigation and included 17 "willful" violations, the strongest description that can be leveled.

The investigation was the first outside review of the Feb. 9 drill in which trainee Racheal M. Wilson died from injuries she received trying to fight a blaze set by instructors in a vacant rowhouse on South Calverton Road in Southwest Baltimore.

Craig D. Lowry, a deputy commissioner for the division of labor and industry, said yesterday that the charges are intended to send a message to the Fire Department's leadership that they must end a "culture of non-compliance" with safety standards.

Most big city fire departments avoid live burn training practices because they find them unsafe. Baltimore has suspended live burns off the academy grounds since the fatality.

According to the charging document, eight fires were lit in the house used for the exercise; national safety standards allow only one at a time. Among other safety violations that were noted: Flammable debris, including tires, remained in the house when it was ignited. A rescue team left its fire hose coiled in the back of a pickup truck. And, an instructor abandoned his cadets when the fire raged out of control.

The documents placed most of the blame for the shoddy planning and execution of the exercise on the two commanders who led it. The Fire Department has identified them as Battalion Chief Kenneth Hyde Sr., who was fired in February, and Lt. Joseph Crest, who is facing termination.

Lowry, the deputy commissioner, said, "There was a culture of non-compliance [with safety standards] that was acceptable to the management on the scene, and that has to change."

"The citations are talking about pulling that culture back together so they do comply with the standard," he said.

The state agency is not permitted to level monetary fines against the city's Fire Department, because the department is a public entity.

"The most important thing is correction of the problem," Lowry said. "They are compelled to take affirmative abatement action. We can step in at anytime and compel compliance in a court."

Dixon deflected questions yesterday about whether she had confidence in Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. "It's not just a matter of having full confidence in Chief Goodwin," she said. "It's also a matter of having confidence in people who were part of this procedure and whether or not those are the best people to fill the academy."

The mayor said she wants to see the results of an investigation by Howard County Deputy Fire Chief Chris Shimer before taking action. "There are a lot changes that are taking place at the academy, and when this final report comes out, I'm expecting to make some major changes over in the Fire Department," she said.

Anthony McCarthy, the mayor's spokesman, said that Shimer's report is due in five to six weeks.


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