The recent death of a Baltimore fire cadet during training has hit the fire and EMS community hard. Racheal Wilson was a 29-year-old mother of two, who had been in the training academy since November when she fought the fire that would be one of her first, but also her last. The day before, two cadets were injured during training. Once again, those of us who are charged with taking care of others failed to take care of our own.
The cadets were sent into a staged rowhouse fire. The abandoned rowhouses had been designated for training fires. But something went wrong very wrong. Wilson took the nozzle and led her crew into the burning building in full turnout gear. She was initially burned on the stairs between the second and third floors, with fire raging on the second floor. On the third floor, she attempted to climb out of a window that was 3 and half feet above the floor, and somehow her boot became trapped. Wilson ended up halfway in and halfway out of the window; her air supply dislodged and her helmet askew. Before her fellow cadets could save her, she was dead.
The preliminary report from the Baltimore Fire Marshal’s Office showed multiple violations of NFPA standards and federal regulations. The cadets had no radios, and there were no instructors inside the structure. Instead of the permissible one fire, there had been seven fires set. And it defies logic, even if you are not a firefighter, to send a crew to the third floor when fire is raging on the second floor.
The chief of the training academy was suspended and subsequently fired. Two other officers were placed on suspension. But for Wilson, there will be no appeals of employment actions, and no second chances.
The IAFC has called training deaths “fratricide” killing one’s brother or in this case, one’s sister. It’s inexcusable that we place trainees in a position of danger in the interest of trying to create a realistic scenario. Our jobs are dangerous, without question. Much of the danger, however, can be mitigated by the use of caution, the following of established standards and the use of good old common sense.
Each year, we see a growing number of EMS vehicle accidents. Despite intensive training in emergency vehicle operations, we continue to see the morbidity and mortality statistics climb. Perhaps we simply need a change in our culture: perhaps we need to teach our new recruits that we come first, not our patients, or a raging fire. If we don’t arrive at the emergency, or if we are injured or killed trying to extinguish a fire, we haven’t achieved our goals at all. Our own safety, and the safety of our partners and crews, should be paramount. Nothing should come before our own safety.
Wilson’s death is not the first during training. We can only hope that it will be the last.