Embattled Fire Chief William Goodwin Jr. Faces The Heat
At 11:51 a.m. on Feb. 9, a radio call went out:
"T2 to Command. We have a down firefighter on Charlie side. On the second floor. Repeat. Down firefighter. Second Floor. Charlie side roof."
"T2" was the Baltimore City Fire Department's (BCFD) Truck Co. 2, alerting BCFD Lt. Joseph Crest that the limp, burned body of trainee firefighter Racheal M. Wilson had just been pulled from an out-of-control blaze onto the roof of the second floor at the rear of 145 S. Calverton Road. The rowhouse had been set ablaze by BCFD trainers as part of a "live burn" exercise designed to expose Wilson and her classmates to the chaos of a real fire call in typical Baltimore housing stock. Despite CPR administered at the scene and quick evacuation to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, Wilson was pronounced dead at 12:50 p.m.
Representatives of the city Fire Investigation Bureau, the Baltimore Police Department's arson unit, and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, as well as the city fire marshal, Capt. Robert Doedderlein, were called to the scene. Attending a conference nearly 6,000 miles away in Israel, Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. received word of the incident via his BlackBerry and made plans to catch a flight back to the United States that night.
Within hours, Mayor Sheila Dixon issued a statement, part of which read:
Racheal died as she prepared to begin a dangerous and necessary public service career. The people of Baltimore are safer because of the courageous individuals who choose a life of public service and risk their lives to protect the members of their community. On behalf of the people of Baltimore and myself, I extend the deepest sympathies to Racheal's family, children, friends, and fellow firefighters and paramedics.
The next morning, Saturday, Goodwin arrived from Israel and was briefed on the incident by his staff. On Monday, Goodwin met with Kenneth Hyde, division chief of training for BCFD, who had been acting as the incident safety officer at the training fire, to review the accident. Within days, Hyde, Crest (commander at the scene), and Lt. Barry Broyles (who had acted as the rapid intervention team leader at the scene, responsible for responding to any incident in which a firefighter lost communication or was in serious danger) were all suspended without pay. Hyde was fired two weeks after the incident. Crest and Broyles, members of the Baltimore Fire Officers Local 964, are to be dismissed in August following the recommendation in May of a panel of their peers, which was convened to review their case per union rules. (The fire officers union membership includes those holding a rank of lieutenant, captain, or battalion chief; Hyde, as a division chief, was not a member and so was not given union protection.)
When asked about speaking with those on the panel, BCFD spokesman Rick Binetti says that the department will not comment on "internal personnel matters."
"It was a tragic accident, from the beginning," Crest says when reached by telephone. "Of course, I am not pleased with the outcome," he adds, not just because he was fired, but because he felt blame was placed solely on Hyde, Broyles, and himself. "I don't agree with that."
"I think my case was an entire sham," Broyles says. He feels that his suspension was premature and that the evidence against him was worth only a suspension. Broyles says that in the weeks after the incident he reflected on Wilson's death and whether he could have somehow changed the outcome. "I went back and looked at everything, and there was nothing I could have done different--absolutely nothing," he says.
Attempts to reach Hyde for comment were unsuccessful as of press time.
Goodwin has remained in his position as chief, however, and not everyone is happy about that. Indeed, for years leaders of the Baltimore Fire Officers union and the Baltimore City Firefighters Local 734 have voiced criticism of what they see as the chief's unilateral implementation of his own policies and promotion of personnel at his own discretion. Some feel that, in part, those decisions ultimately led to Racheal Wilson's death. When polled by mail in April and May, half of the rank and file firefighters and 75 percent of the officers returned votes of no confidence in Goodwin's leadership.
The presidents of both unions depict Goodwin as an autocrat who is more antagonistic to those under him than supportive. "We believe it's all about him, whatever makes him look good," says Richard G. Schluderberg, president of Local 734. Goodwin counters that he is simply implementing plans to better his department and thinks the union gripes stem from a reluctance to change. Dixon has left Goodwin at his post, with the admonishment to work things out with the unions, but with the mayor up for re-election this fall, many within and without the fire department are wondering whether the BCFD--or Dixon--can afford to let the controversy go on unchecked.
During his six years as chief, Goodwin says he has overseen drastic changes in the department. "In the year 2007, the traditional [firefighter] is immensely different," he says during a phone interview. "We are not the guy that sits around the firehouse waiting for the bell to ring and rides out the door and just waves to the neighbors, as it used to be."
Goodwin says if you knocked on a Baltimore City firehouse door dying of a heart attack five years ago, the response would have been for a firefighter to pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1 for a medic. Now all new city firefighters are cross-trained in emergency medicine. In addition to traditional medic units, which provide emergency medical services (EMS) and transport to hospitals, BCFD engine and truck units now provide an increased amount of EMS. In 2002, BCFD rolled out six advanced EMS-equipped engines, designed to provide the same level of on-site care as a medic unit.
The drive to update the fire department's EMS capabilities follows the national trend. According to a 2002 study by the Federal Emergency Management Administration and National Fire Protection Association, every one of the 51 fire departments in the United States responsible for communities with 500,000 people or more provide EMS services. According to a Baltimore CitiStat report from November 2006, half to two-thirds of most engine and truck companies' responses were EMS-related in 2006, up from less than half in 2001.
As firefighters' roles have expanded from just putting out blazes to acting as emergency medical technicians, handling hazardous-materials incidents, and facing a standing call as homeland security first responders, the chief says he believes that union leadership has dragged its feet. He considers much of the criticism he faces as "the old against the new and fear of the future."
Goodwin has some perspective on the Baltimore City Fire Department. A Baltimore native who "grew up in Canton before Canton was cool," Goodwin worked his way up through the ranks from EMT firefighter in 1975 to emergency vehicle driver, pump operator, lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, shift commander, and head of the Fire Academy. As part of his duties as a lieutenant and captain between 1979 and 1990, Goodwin oversaw the department's Special Operations unit, responsible for heavy rescue (such as extraction from wrecked cars or collapsed buildings), underwater search and recovery, and high-rise aerial rescue. While director of the academy, Goodwin was appointed by then-Gov. Parris Glendening to the Maryland Fire-Rescue Education and Training Commission, which develops standards for fire, rescue, and EMS education and training in the state.
In February 2002, then-Mayor Martin O'Malley tapped Goodwin to lead the department, announcing in a press release, "I am convinced that Chief Goodwin has what it takes to make Baltimore the safest big city in America. He is steeped in the tradition of the Baltimore City Fire Department, but also realizes that the way an agency, or any institution, stays on top is by embracing change before it overruns you."
Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers union, says conflict with Goodwin started early in the chief's tenure. After working with Goodwin to secure an overtime agreement for the officers he represents in 2002, Fugate says he was blindsided when the chief unilaterally implemented a 50/50 overtime/compensation time system quite different then the contractual agreement they had been working out. "What that signaled was that he really didn't give a damn what the unions thought," Fugate says.
"The problem we see," firefighters union President Schluderberg says, "is he is the only chief that we know of that actively seeks to take benefits away from the rank and file." Schluderberg, a 33-year BCFD veteran, contends that the unions have filed more grievances with Goodwin than anytime in his memory, mostly over pay increases, benefits, and overtime.
Overtime is a serious concern for Baltimore firefighters. According to a CitiStat report from November 2006, the department averaged 4,459 overtime hours a week from August to October 2006, 88 percent of that worked by firefighters. A similar report from June 2001 indicated an average of 3,666 hours of overtime a week over the previous nine months, 86 percent of which was logged by firefighters. Fugate says the department needs to add 115 more personnel to the more than 1,600 current members to tamp down overtime costs. Department spokesman Rick Binetti agrees and says Goodwin has requested budgeting for an average of 100 additional firefighters every year since becoming chief.
Much of the unions' resentment over the overtime comes from what they say is the source of the extra work: Fugate contends that a considerable portion of overtime hours come from more than 100 firefighters working ad hoc information-technology positions, tracking firefighters locations and availability through a computer monitoring network that has been developed over the past few years. Keeping track of firefighters, Fugate says, is a job that used to be the responsibility of battalion chiefs.
Goodwin defends the new system. "We used to do that by pencil, three-ring binder, and paper," he says. "And now it's all computerized, instantaneous--I can sit at my desk and tell you where any firefighter is in this department anytime of the day or night, even if they are off." Binetti contends that the computerized system has, in fact, halved the paperwork time it takes to monitor firefighters. Goodwin allows that it might be possible to replace some computer support positions with civilian staff, but that those people would not understand the role of firefighters as well as a firefighter would.
"Our department was the No. 1 Y2K compliant department in the year 2000," Goodwin says on the subject of computers. "Know why?" The answer: There were only three computers in the department at the time. Goodwin says there are now computers at every firehouse, a network wired together by department members (many working overtime) rather than by a company such as Verizon--a measure that saved the department hundreds of thousands of dollars, he contends.
The real bulk of overtime, Goodwin says, comes from the mounting EMS call load and a minimal staffing clause--a safety requirement that every truck and engine that leaves the firehouse have four people on it, even if the call is for, say, a minor traffic accident.
Unions may gripe, but with average fire response time under four minutes, Goodwin says the department is meeting the needs of the public. "There are virtually no complaints from the citizens--we are doing excellent providing the services the citizens need," he says. "I think you would hear if the citizens were upset with us."
And in the face of the no-confidence votes, Goodwin says he gets a different feeling from the rank and file: "I visit stations and talk to the men and women, and the No. 1 complaint that they have given me is that they don't see me enough."
According to Goodwin, when he does field complaints he sometimes says, "`Somebody pick which old day you want to go back to.'" When he joined the department in the 1970s, he notes, he had a plastic helmet that melted, wore rubber boots, and was issued no gloves. "We have come a long, long way," he says.
After two firefighters died during a training exercise in Boulder, Colo., in 1982, the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which researches and develops safe firefighting practices, produced a document called Standard 1403 to outline safe procedures for live-fire training. After reviewing the Feb. 9 incident that cost Racheal Wilson her life, the Baltimore City Fire Department identified possible violations to 36 requirements of Standard 1403.
It was cold and breezy as recruits of Fire and Paramedic Apprentice (FPA) Class 19 and the staff of the city Fire Academy convened at 145 S. Calverton Road. The city housing department had provided Hyde the house for a previous training exercise that included stripping of drywall and plaster from the ceilings and walls, leaving the joists and framing exposed--a condition, according to a preliminary report by the city's Fire Investigation Bureau, that enabled fire to spread quickly along the ceilings.
Using wooden pallets and wood shavings, BCFD training personnel set a total of eight separate fires on the three floors of the abandoned dwelling. (The number of fires was first reported to be two, and then up to seven, until a follow-up report by the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation identified an additional eighth fire on the second floor.) National Fire Protection Association Standard 1403 requires that only one fire be set at a time in acquired structures.
Racheal Wilson, seven other recruits, and two trainers pushed forward into the smoke and heat with their fire hoses and heavy protective gear. After battling one of the five fires on the second floor, Wilson's team ascended to attack the fires on the third floor. The fires still blazing on the floor below them sent heat and smoke up the stairwell, burning recruit Stephanie Cisneros on the leg. Cisneros and a training instructor, emergency vehicle driver Ryan Wegner, clambered out of a third-story rear window onto the roof of the second floor after she told him that her leg was burned. Wilson soon appeared at the same window with burns on her face; she had difficulty climbing over the high windowsill with her heavy protective gear. Wegner and others struggled to free Wilson from the burning building. When they finally did, Wilson was not breathing and had no pulse.
"The Calverton Road situation," Goodwin says, "the way it was unfortunately presented to the students, it would have been a challenge to professional firefighters responding to the incident." Many safeguards are in place to make live-fire training as safe as possible, while providing a realistic experience, and the academy has guidelines for live fires at the BCFD training facility that are even more stringent than what the NFPA requires, though they do not address acquired structures, Goodwin and Binetti say.
But in a June 1 article in The Sun, Broyles and Crest contended that the Calverton fire was similar to previous training fires conducted by the academy. "I have yet to see a live burn anywhere that followed [NFPA Standard] 1403," Broyles was quoted as saying. "If you are going to follow [NFPA Standard] 1403 one hundred percent, you will send [recruits] out there who are not prepared to fight fire." Nonetheless, in a subsequent phone interview with City Paper, Broyles said that during the five years he was at the academy, there had been no live-fire burns in acquired structures prior to 2007.
"That isn't the case as far as the way I conducted it when I was [at the Fire Academy], the way this department condones [them to be] conducted, and unfortunately not a real good testament for the instructors who said that's the way they conduct them," Goodwin counters.
The preliminary BCFD report indicates that investigators questioned trainers at the academy about previous live burns, but the report contains no indication of the findings regarding previous training fires. Asked if investigators found it was standard practice for the academy to set such intense fires, Goodwin says, "Not that has come to great light."
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health recommends that live-fire training be conducted at controlled facilities, and the city Fire Academy has such facilities. Nonetheless, Goodwin defends the practice of live burns in acquired structures, a practice common among county and volunteer fire departments in Maryland. "It's heavily embraced in our state," he says. "Nowhere does the NFPA . . . recommend or even infer that these types of [training fires] should not take place." But section A.4.2.1 in Annex A of NFPA 1403 (2002 edition) states, "Where training facility burn buildings are available, they should be used instead of acquired structures."
Typically, Goodwin says, the city has conducted one or two live burns in acquired structures per year over the past five years. "We would embrace it if we have an opportunity," he says, though the process of obtaining structures and the required permits is involved and opportunities for live burns have become less common as the value of real estate in Baltimore has increased.
Goodwin also points out that training is a dangerous part of a dangerous job, accounting for 15 percent of all firefighter injuries. According to the NFPA, of the 100 firefighters who died during training between 1996 and 2005, four were killed by heat, smoke, or burns related to training fires. In each of those cases, investigators identified violations of Standard 1403, such as setting multiple fires.
Goodwin says laying the responsibility for Wilson's death on one person's shoulders won't fix the systemic problems that led to the February accident. "If we don't accept fault as a department and get better . . . this can happen again," he says. "If we blame one person and get rid of that one person and say the cancer is gone without a lifestyle change--a remediation of what we do and checkups and things of that nature--we wouldn't cure a disease."
Though fire department union leaders make no secret that their dissatisfaction with Goodwin had been festering for some time, they say that the South Calverton fire was the tipping point. "That accident was . . . kind of the final straw," Fugate says.
"Right, that's the straw that broke the camel's back," Schluderberg agrees.
"The fact of the matter is that [Goodwin] created the atmosphere that led to that recruit's death," Fugate continues. "That atmosphere was putting people in charge of divisions and responsibilities in our department [who] had neither the experience or ability to perform." Fugate says that while Kenneth Hyde deserves--and has taken the brunt of--the official fallout from the incident, he notes that Goodwin handpicked Hyde to run the academy: "I would submit to you that the chief [deserves] as much blame for . . . having put Ken Hyde in that position."
"Before this happened, Kenny Hyde was the . . . person everybody looked to on a hazardous-material response [and] major incidents," Goodwin says, adding that Hyde had been commended as a Baltimorean of the Year in Baltimore magazine for his role in responding to a fatal water-taxi accident in the Inner Harbor in 2004. "You look at the man's career--nothing [bad] on his record," Goodwin says. "Man's had a stellar career and had one really, really bad day that turned tragic, and, and somebody lost their life."
Goodwin says he even understands how things at the training academy got out of hand. "I think a little bit of eagerness to overly prepare [recruits] is . . . what began to develop," he says. "And then from that would be an instructor or a teacher's sense of pride, to be able to send that [recruit] out there extremely well-prepared." He adds, "Unfortunately, we see what happens when you take some shortcuts."
But Fugate contends that Goodwin has taken a few shortcuts of his own. Civil-service rules and contracts between the two unions and BCFD mandate that promotions are generally based on seniority and on how department members who are up for promotion do on a written exam that is given every two years. Fugate says that Hyde, on the other hand, was "magic-wanded" from lieutenant to division chief, a process Fugate says normally takes 10 to 12 years, in a fraction of that time through the use of a backdoor promotional mechanism that circumvents union and civil-service process--a tactic he says has become common under Goodwin.
Civil-service rules and contracts between the two unions and BCFD mandate that promotions are generally based on seniority and exam scores. Goodwin acknowledges that he promoted Hyde to captain, then battalion commander over a period of approximately four years, before tapping him to lead the Fire Academy in 2006. Fugate says Hyde's promotion is one of many such instances of rapid promotions during Goodwin's tenure, leading to a command structure assembled outside of the usual requirements and oversight and based on, Fugate contends in an e-mail, "favoritism and cronyism, and having little to do with performance or ability."
According to BCFD rosters, there are 21 individuals on Goodwin's command staff, including eight division chiefs or acting division chiefs (as Hyde was), the chief of staff, deputy chiefs, and a public information officer. Besides the public information officer, these individuals are not members of the fire officers union and serve at will, Fugate says. According to Fugate, Goodwin's predecessor, Herman Williams, created newly classified positions such as these at the upper command level to bypass normal civil-service and union requirements--a technique Williams picked up while working in other departments. For example, Fugate says, if a captain retired, union and civil-service rules mandate that he or she would have to be replaced with the next eligible ranking individual, but if the chief creates a brand-new position at the division chief level, he can fill that position with whomever he chooses.
"Chief Goodwin could grab, you know, someone off a bus stop and make them a division chief--he has that authority," Fugate says.
Goodwin defends the practice of hand-selecting his command staff. He says the department operated under the union rules for a long time, but that "it just didn't serve the department well." The union requirements of taking a written test might work for an engine driver, but higher-ranking personnel need a more diverse set of skills, he says. The average tenure of those on the current command staff is 27 years of service, and Goodwin's goal is to make the entire department "rÈsumÈ-based" rather than relying on a civil-service test.
The South Calverton incident eventually precipitated two no-confidence votes from the union. Asked about the votes, Goodwin notes there have been votes of no confidence against every recent chief. During interviews, Schluderberg and Fugate refer only to one other no-confidence vote in their institutional memories, for Williams. And Goodwin, Fugate notes, "received the highest number of `no support' votes between the two and deserved every single one."
Things are tense right now, Goodwin acknowledges, but he hopes that eventually the unions will come around. "I think there's a fear that exists now that any agreement with . . . the [department's] administration would be an admission of guilt, and I really think that is what fueled a lot of things in the first two months [since the training fire]," he says. Regardless, he is moving forward with his plans for the department. "The world is going to go on whether certain people want it to or not," he says.
Mayor Sheila Dixon's staff said she could spare 20 minutes to discuss issues involving the chief, but that gets shortened to 10. She sits down with a reporter in a conference room at the Empowerment Temple's offices at 1505 Eutaw Place after helping kick off the anti-crime "Stop Sinning" campaign to talk about her decision to keep Goodwin at his post despite calls for his resignation from the unions and other elements associated with the department. (According to a March 16 story in The Sun, the Vulcan Blazers, a group that represents black Baltimore firefighters, have called for Goodwin to be replaced by civil leadership.)
Dixon acknowledges that Goodwin bears responsibility for choosing Hyde to lead the academy: "He would, because he thought [Hyde] was, at that point, the best person to be Fire Academy director."
Asked about Goodwin's hand-selected command personnel, Dixon responds: "That has been a concern . . . we've had conversations about that. I'm actually trying to get a better sense of why all those positions were created." Asked if the procedure of appointing at-will positions will be evaluated, she answers, "Oh, definitely, yes."
Dixon and Goodwin aren't strangers. The mayor worked with the fire chief when she was City Council president, and he was head of the city's emergency-readiness program after the Sept. 11 attacks. "He's been very responsive [and] he's a very straightforward person," she says. "Some people don't like that."
Some people have not liked the mayor's perceived lack of response concerning complaints about the chief. Schluderberg and Fugate take issue with a part of a statement issued by Dixon's office on Feb. 15 that read, in part:
Fugate wrote in the April/May 2007 edition of his union's newsletter that he felt it was Goodwin who had given the mayor the idea to place the blame on the 19 firefighters.
Schluderberg says raising issues during a fire of any kind is discouraged. "If you question the chief officer, it only takes a few words before you are suspended for insubordination," he says. "Like the military, you follow orders."
Asked about references to the 19 firefighters and the responsibility of those Fire Department personnel on the scene, Goodwin says "I only wish we could have changed the course of destiny [if someone had spoken up]. And that is the point the mayor and I were trying to get across--not this exacerbated culpability that is portrayed sometimes in [the media], but that we are all a team and that you either overtly or covertly buy into something."
He maintains that input is common during real-world firefighting. "There is representation and buy-in and . . . dialogue between people on fire grounds all the time," he says. He was not trying to make it an issue of culpability, he adds, but wants people to raise issues if they see them: "Please don't fly blindly into the ground. This is not the Blue Angels."
Goodwin feels the preliminary investigation conducted by his department in February with the assistance of the Baltimore Police Department arson unit, the federal ATF, and other organizations was thorough. Spurred by the findings, Goodwin says he is reviewing safety procedures and practices across the department. According to a May 8 article in The Sun on a shift in "safety culture," the condition of safety equipment is being scrutinized and the department recently added two safety officers who will work to review safety awareness with personnel at firehouses.
Goodwin is also looking to make administrative changes. He has issued an order to rotate battalion chiefs to oversee new battalions. Goodwin says so-called "retirement houses" that receive few calls are a thing of the past due to added responsibilities, including EMS, hazardous materials, and disaster preparedness. "Now everyone is busy all the time," he says. "And that's a huge change for the way we operate." He believes that rotating the battalion chiefs to new posts, which he says is common in departments across the country, will serve to even out strengths within the department by moving stronger chiefs to work with units that may need more support and having chiefs who may lack experience or expertise work in units that are better established.
Schluderberg doesn't think the proposed administrative changes would be beneficial and are an attempt to draw attention away from Wilson's death. "I believe that's more or less smoke screen," he says. In response to objections, Goodwin has temporarily suspended the order so he can meet with battalion chiefs in an effort to get their participation with implementing a system.
Meanwhile, Dixon has asked Howard County Deputy Fire Chief R. Chris Shimer to conduct a third-party investigation of the February incident. The Howard County review, originally expected to be completed in a matter of weeks, is not due out until sometime in August, says Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Dixon. Goodwin says he understands that the reason it will take longer than originally expected is that the review is being done on a part-time basis. Goodwin says he feels confident that the Howard County review will validate the findings of his department's investigation.
"I think this is not the time to say, `Should I get rid of Chief Goodwin?'" Dixon says. "Would you want to take [away] the experience of an individual and group of individuals in the middle of a transition period?" She is referring to her own administration, whose own continued tenure faces its first accountability check in the primary election on Sept. 11. But Dixon acknowledges that findings from the Howard County investigation could lead to further dismissals from the department. "I think so, I think it will," she says.
Asked if those dismissals could include Goodwin, Dixon responds, "Sept. 12 is a different day," adding, "I just really believe that that information will dictate and direct a whole host of things and changes that are going to need to take place. I really do." Dixon says she hopes between now and then Goodwin will work to keep communication with the unions open.
Fugate contends the mayor is focused solely on the election and does not want any kind of turmoil or major upheaval and thus is ignoring the opinions of the firefighters. "You know it's almost like, `You guys do a great job, but your opinion doesn't count,'" he says. ("No, I am not ignoring it," Dixon says of the union's unhappiness with the chief.)
Schluderberg says his union's endorsement in the upcoming election is still undecided, though he notes that "Mayor Dixon has not helped herself in that regard."
Goodwin, meanwhile, remains determined to continue to better the department. During an interview, he repeatedly describes his position in terms of a CEO. "You better have that capability to be able to handle a $200 million corporation," he says, describing a need to always be looking to be better, focusing five to 10 years down the road. "We have to continue to be aggressive and proactive."
At the end of the interview, Goodwin implores a reporter to give credit where credit is due within the department.
"There are 1,800 men and women and several hundred civilians that bust their butts day in and day out, handle hundreds and hundreds of calls every day, without flaw, save people, and give them an opportunity to have a little better life," he says. "They're the only thing between a disaster and a breath of hope and they do that each and every day. And that's really the story, no matter what you have to write about me."
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