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Review demands prompt response in fire department

"At some point, we need to do something."

We couldn't say it better ourselves.

The comment is by Jim Carino, vice president of the union local that represents Clearwater's firefighters, and it was offered Friday in response to the release of another outside review that rips the management, training and procedures of the Clearwater Fire Department.

The draft report of a management audit of the department by Tallahassee-based MGT of America lists many criticisms, including these:

+ The Fire Department suffers from internal conflict, public disagreements, ineffective communications and impaired relationships.

+ There are not enough senior officers to provide oversight of the rank and file during all hours of the day, and even when senior managers are available, they respond too slowly to major incidents.

+ The department doesn't do enough training in high-rise firefighting procedures, firefighter safety, tactical fire problems and management of major fire incidents.

+ Training of new recruits is too brief.

+ Top management is "isolated" from the rest of the department.

The preliminary report suggests a major and expensive overhaul of the department to increase training and accountability of rank-and-file firefighters and paramedics as well as officers; to add more officer positions so that round-the-clock supervision of fire crews and fire incidents will be available; and to improve internal communications and career development opportunities for Fire Department employees.

The work by MGT of America is not finished. City officials are working on responses to the audit's initial findings and recommendations, and a final report will be released later.

Though the findings are preliminary, this is now the third outside review of the department since the fire at Dolphin Cove condominiums in June 2002 that left two residents dead and several firefighters seriously injured. All three reviews found shortcomings throughout the department that could endanger the public and firefighters.

Yet, city officials' response to the MGT report Friday seemed almost nonchalant. Some had not read the report. Others said it held no surprises. City Manager Bill Horne said his staff would review the report after it is finalized weeks from now, then decide what to do. And he added, "What I'm not going to do is just run out and fire people. Change occurs over time."

Horne is not one to go off half-cocked, and that kind of deliberative approach often serves him well. But in this case, the MGT audit seems to mirror many of Horne's own conclusions after the Dolphin Cove fire laid bare the department's weaknesses. That was almost 20 months ago, and for most of that time, Horne has known that his top officers were too weak to provide proper leadership, that the rank and file was insufficiently trained and supervised, and that too many people in the department felt they were not accountable for their actions.

If he was looking to the MGT audit to confirm his suspicions, he has that confirmation now. It is crystal-clear that a housecleaning and reorganization are essential so the Fire Department can provide the services and protection Clearwater residents expect. Delaying action only puts more lives at risk.