Fitness for duty

The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore Fire Department failed recruit Racheal M. Wilson long before she entered a burning rowhouse in a training exercise. It accepted her into a cadet class in 2006, when it probably shouldn't have. Officials overlooked her failings on an agility test and sent her into a live-burn exercise when she apparently wasn't ready to handle it.

An independent investigation of Ms. Wilson's death reaffirmed that many mistakes were made during the training exercise, but it raises new concerns about a firefighter's fitness for duty that shouldn't be ignored.

Ms. Wilson died in the Feb. 9 exercise after she was overcome by heat and smoke and couldn't climb out of a window to escape. A department probe found dozens of safety violations, which led to the firings of the academy director and two other officers and an overhaul of the training-safety division.

But the independent evaluation of the accident ordered by Mayor Sheila Dixon also suggests that Cadet Wilson may not have been ready to enter training. And the question that must be asked is why the department would admit Ms. Wilson after she performed poorly on agility tests.

Firefighting is a demanding, dangerous job, and its newest recruits should be in the best shape, physically and mentally. If not then, when? The department should have an overall fitness standard; resistance to one, either by officials or firefighters, is unacceptable considering the rigors of the job.

Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. rejects the suggestion that Ms. Wilson died because of problems related to her performance on one aspect of a five-part agility test. The safety lapses and mistakes on the fire scene that day - some very basic - were responsible for her death, he says, and we don't disagree.

The department that performed so poorly that day, he says, isn't the one he was raised in. But it is the agency he commands. The investigative report offers a chance to revisit the fitness issue. Can seriously overweight firefighters do their job ably and safely?

The report by Howard County Deputy Chief Chris Shimer also harshly criticized a view in the department that "recruits must be exposed to heavy fire conditions in order to be adequately prepared for the field." That literal trial by fire sounds more like a hazing rite than a professional firefighter's code.

Chief Goodwin should ask Mr. Shimer to return in three months and undertake a performance audit to see whether policy changes ordered by the chief are being followed and the firefighter culture has improved. The work at the Fire Department is not done.

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