Union officials blame supervisors in Baltimore recruit's death

By Annie Linskey
The Baltimore Sun 
Copyright 2007 The Baltimore Sun Company
All Rights Reserved

BALTIMORE, Md. — Recruits at a training fire that killed a Baltimore cadet were not told how many fires would be lit and were not familiar with the layout of the building - both in violation of national standards, union officials said yesterday.

Also, one of the teams assigned to battle a blaze on the third floor of the vacant rowhouse did not have a radio, there was no backup water source to extinguish the fire and the recruits were led by untrained instructors, according to the union leaders.

Those details, and others that are emerging, provide new evidence of disorder during virtually every phase of the Feb. 9 exercise on South Calverton Road and reveal a disregard for safety standards the department says it follows.

City fire officials, in the midst of their investigation, have admitted violating some protocols and have suspended three fire officers without pay: Battalion Chief Kenneth Hyde Sr., head of the academy; Lt. Joseph Crest, the lead instructor; and Lt. Barry Broyes, head of the Rapid Intervention Team.

"Most of what I heard is all negative," said Rick Schluderberg, the president of Fire Fighters Local 734. "There isn't too much that they [the fire department management] did right."

Racheal M. Wilson, an academy recruit, died of thermal injuries and asphyxia, the medical examiner's office said yesterday. She was 29 and had two young children. Her family said that she was covered with burns and was in pain before she died at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

The fire department would not comment on the exercise, but a spokesman, Rick Binetti, said that parts of the investigation would be released this week or next week.

"We can't comment on the specifics of the investigation until it is completed," said Binetti.

Binetti said the way the blaze was started and whether a "walkthrough" was held to inspect the building before setting the fires are two areas investigators are scrutinizing.

Schluderberg, the union official, combed through the safety regulations over the weekend and said he had identified 27 areas where regulations might not have been followed.

When putting out fires, the department is supposed to make sure a secondary team of firefighters - a Rapid Intervention Team - is suited up to replace firefighters who are tired, injured or in trouble.

At the South Calverton Road fire, the head of that team, Broyes, did not have a hose charged and did not have proper equipment, union officials have said.

And, union officials said yesterday, Broyes' RIT was not composed of real firefighters, but of cadets from Wilson's class.

"It almost flies in the face of the purpose of a RIT team," said Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, the president of the Baltimore Fire Officers union. "The RIT team is supposed to be the rescuers of the rescuers. It is almost comical to have recruits assigned that duty. It is like the blind leading the blind."

Fugate said the only pieces of fire apparatus assigned to the exercise were staffed by recuits and firefighters working as instructors. He said on the scene were an engine, which supplies water, a truck that has rescue equipment, a transport vehicle and the training chief's pickup. He said there was no medic at the rowhouse.

The union chief said another engine and truck happened to stop by to see the exercise and were still there when Wilson got into trouble.

But when William J. Goodwin Jr., now the city's fire chief, was in charge of the academy in 1999, he requested much more equipment for a similar live-fire training exercise, at the Chesapeake Village Apartments in Baltimore County. According to a memo obtained by The Sun, Goodwin then asked for two engines, an aerial tower, a truck and two medics. He also asked for a van carrying oxygen tanks and the coffee wagon.

Union officials also said that the "instructors" used in the training exercise were not certified teachers from the academy. They were regular firefighters pulling extra shifts. This means they were not properly trained to teach in a live fire, Fugate said.

Also, Wilson's instructor did not have a radio, said Bob Sledgeski, secretary and treasurer with the firefighters' union.

"The one unit that really needed a radio didn't have one," Fugate added. "That should have been determined in advance."

The emergency exits also should have been pointed out in advance, but they were not, Sledgeski said. Some of the recruits went inside the house to help place wooden pallets throughout the building. But Sledgeski said the group was never taken through the house in a formal "walkthrough," which is required under the rules governing live training burns.

Sledgeski said only one hydrant was tapped for the exercise. When a house is on fire, the department will typically connect a "pumper truck" to a hydrant and then run multiple hoses from the truck.

But training standards require that two hydrants - or water sources - be tapped, so that if there is a problem with one hydrant, the firefighters will have a backup.

Fires were set on each floor of the three-story rowhouse on South Calverton Road, Sledgeski said. Safety standards limit training exercises to one fire. Sledgeski said recruits were told that they would face only two fires. The third was essentially a "surprise" fire.

Wilson's team was instructed to focus their efforts on the top-floor blaze, Sledgeski said. The group was told that a team behind them would extinguish the second-floor blaze.

Wilson's team followed instructions, Sledgeski said. They entered the house, did not see the first-floor fire and walked to the second floor, where they found a fire. "They gave the second-floor fire a quick hit, thinking that the second-floor crew would be behind them," Sledgeski said.

But the second-floor crew was not behind them. They had found the first-floor fire and tried to put it out.

Meanwhile, the second-floor fire was blazing out of control and causing the temperature on the third floor to increase, Sledgeski said. The instructor in charge of the third-floor team did not have a radio to find out what was going wrong.

"There was a huge buildup of heat on the third floor," Sledgeski said. "The decision was made that it was time to get out."

It is unclear what happened after that. But several people pulled themselves out of an interior third-floor window that was in a stairwell. Wilson had difficulty getting out, Sledgeski said.

At her funeral, Goodwin said the department failed Wilson. Some members of Wilson's family have hired Warren A. Brown, a prominent city lawyer, to represent them should they decide to take legal action.

"They want answers for what happened," Brown said. "They want to make sure it doesn't happen to anything else."

In Lairdsville, a tiny town in upstate New York, a volunteer fire chief was convicted of negligent homicide and served jail time for his role in a fatal training exercise that involved a set fire in a century-old farm house. But in that case, several recruits were ordered to go upstairs and lie down so they could pretend to be victims.

No fire hoses were charged before the fire was set and the lines were not in position. Also, plywood boards were nailed over the windows, leaving a small hole in one wall as the only escape route.

The deputy chief, who later went to jail, set a sofa on fire directly below where the recruits were playing victim. "The fire raged out of control, raced up the staircase, and the entire place became an inferno," said Michael A. Coluzza, who prosecuted the case. A jury convicted Alan G. Baird, the deputy fire chief, of criminally negligent manslaughter, a charge that does not exist in Maryland. He spent 75 days in jail, had five years of probation and was forbidden from ever being a part of any volunteer fire department.

Hyde's defense lawyer, Peter S. O'Neill, said he has not been contacted by anybody about potential criminal liability in the Baltimore case. "Everyone wants to find someone at fault if there is a death," O'Neill said. "It doesn't mean someone is at fault."

Partial list of safety requirements for live burns in buildings outside the fire academy grounds:

All hazardous structural conditions shall be removed or repaired.

Debris creating or contributing to unsafe conditions shall be removed.

Exits from the building shall be identified and evaluated prior to each training burn.

Separate source shall be used for the supply of attack lines and backup line to prevent loss of water.

Only one fire at a time shall be permitted within an acquired structure.

Walkthrough and inspection of structure required before fire is set.

[Source: National Fire Protection Association] 

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