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Chief backs fire dept.

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's fire chief defended his beleaguered department yesterday after an independent investigation concluded that a recruit who was killed in a training exercise had been poorly trained and outfitted. But Mayor Sheila Dixon said her "confidence level" in the chief's leadership "is very questionable."

Dixon said she also had concerns about the judgments made by firefighters who were at the Feb. 9 fire in a vacant rowhouse on South Calverton Road that killed cadet Racheal M. Wilson and indicated more discipline could be meted out in the coming days. A top commander and two supervisors have already been fired.

When asked about the future of Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., Dixon said: "I have real strong questions at every level. I'll need to digest the report."

Goodwin, who escaped criticism in the independent report to be released tomorrow, which was obtained by The Sun, said he felt it was "thorough" but he disagreed with the finding that Wilson wasn't properly prepared to fight a live fire.

The chief distanced himself from decisions made by firefighters during back-to-back training exercises Feb. 8 and 9 - which the report criticized for violating national safety standards - saying they do not represent the department he has run for the past five years.

"It was not the department I was raised in, it is not the department I know," Goodwin said in an interview. He said an exercise should be a perfectly planned event - and one which can be canceled at any moment if a problem occurs. "Anything could have happened to that vacant house," he said. "It could have burned to the ground. There was no reason to go forward if everything isn't perfect."

Frustrated members of Wilson's family in Baltimore reacted with anger when they heard the details of the report from news accounts. "At this point now I'm so angry, that it is best not to say anything for now," said Priscilla Neal, the mother of Wilson's boyfriend. "Why would they send her in a burning building?"

Another branch of the family, in Denver, received the report from the mayor's office via e-mail early yesterday. They declined to comment.

The 121-page report, commissioned by Dixon and written by a Howard County deputy fire chief, criticizes virtually every aspect of the exercise and concludes that 50 safety standards were violated, including setting multiple fires when only one is allowed, failing to have adequate backup and failing to equip some of the recruits and instructors with radios.

City officials had said the exercise was fraught with problems, but the report due out tomorrow lists many new concerns.

It concludes that Wilson had failed agility tests and was not prepared to fight a live fire, and died when she became trapped on the third floor during a chaotic escape as the fire raged out of control. The report said her decade-old pants had holes and frayed in the intense heat and criticized instructors who it said abandoned her inside the dwelling.

The heads of the Fire Department's two unions, who did not have copies of the report yesterday, agreed that the department had failed Wilson but complained that undue blame was being placed on low-level firefighters who didn't have any way of knowing about training safety standards.

"The ultimate responsibility should lie with Goodwin," said Richard G. Schluderberg, the president of the Baltimore Fire Fighters Union. "I believe we are lucky that this didn't happen before if this is the type of training that was going on all along."

Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the fire officers' union, said accountability should not end with those who ran the exercise. "I'm disappointed but not surprised about the apparent exoneration of Goodwin," he said. "This thing could be written on Scott towels because he's washing his hands with it."

The report noted for the first time that fire commanders violated safety standards at a similar live burn Feb. 8 where recruits "burned the whole roof off" a vacant dwelling, according to an account from an interview with the then head of the training academy, Division Chief Kenneth Hyde, who was fired after the exercise.

It says that instructors at the fire academy allowed Wilson to progress despite reports that she had removed her air mask in exercises, had trouble controlling the nozzle of a hose and had experienced difficulty putting up ladders. "It is clear that she wasn't prepared," Dixon said at a news conference at City Hall yesterday. "It is very clear there was a breakdown in oversight."

Dixon focused on the actions of instructors and mid-level fire commanders who conducted the exercises. "What stood out [in the report] is you have experienced firefighters who made decisions and who were unprepared," the mayor said. "They should have led by example."

Dixon said that she expects the department to implement recommendations in the report, which include requiring new recruits to pass an agility test before being hired, stabilizing leadership at the academy, which has had six chiefs in five years, and ensuring that subordinates feel comfortable questioning orders.

"The overall culture and attitude within the Baltimore City Fire Department's Training Academy and possibly the department in general maybe be in need of adjustment," according to the report.

Dixon and Goodwin left open the possibility that more firefighters could be fired. Goodwin noted that the two firefighters who refused to cooperate with the investigation, Lt. Eugene Jones and Tarnisha Lee, an apprentice, may face disciplinary action.

About others who may face punishment for their role, he said: "I don't know which direction it will take. Do we want to do more discipline or do we want to promote a sense of healing? Do we want to continue to dig?"

The three fire commanders who have already lost their jobs in the wake of the exercise are Hyde and two instructors, Lts. Joseph Crest and Barry Broyles.

Goodwin disputed the report's conclusion that Wilson was unprepared, saying she "absolutely" should have been accepted to the academy despite falling 10 seconds short on a test that required her to run up and down a six-story tower in four minutes and 30 seconds. "We didn't accept the people who took 14 minutes," Goodwin said.

He also said that he was unaware of the systematic problems at the academy that the report revealed, noting that during Hyde's brief tenure he heard only glowing reports. "People were sending him high accolades. They were saying that [the] academy never looked better," he said.

About the recommendation that recruits must pass a physical fitness test to gain a space in the academy classes, Goodwin said: "I rose to chief and I never took one."

He does not object to requiring recruits to pass a fitness test as long as all firefighters have to pass similar exams. Both Goodwin and the union chiefs insisted that they've been trying for years to implement fitness standards - but each party said the other had blocked that process.

Goodwin has sought to change the culture at the academy and the department. The mid-level battalion chiefs are now rotated through firehouses, out of a concern that some have grown too close to their men and won't properly discipline them. Roughly 700 pieces of equipment have been replaced on orders from officers at the newly empowered safety office, according to Rick Binetti, a department spokesman.

Despite Goodwin's efforts to improve the fire academy, the report noted that at least one person was still able to graduate without completing all of the requirements. "There may be others in the same situation, but this was the only one brought to the attention of the investigative team," according to the report.

The investigators criticized Emergency Vehicle Driver Ryan Wenger, Wilson's instructor, for leaving the burning building before she could get out. The report states that had he stayed in the building he would have been better positioned to lift her out.

Schluderberg, the president of Baltimore Fire Fighters union, said that labeling Wenger's actions abandonment was "libelous," noting that the instructor suffered severe burns to his wrists while trying to extract Wilson. "It had to be like a blast furnace in there," Schluderberg said. "He was trying to get her out. Abandonment means running away."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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