Can't They Let Them Rest in Peace?

Two firefighters were killed and several others were injured following a wall collapse after a five-alarm fire in Philadelphia, PA, last month. Fire Politics Contributing Editor and retired Fire Chief Dennis Compton has long said, “When you respond to a house fire, it is the occupants’ worst day of their lives.” A line-of-duty death is the worst day in the lives of the firefighter’s family and the firefighters who worked with or knew the fallen member. One line-of-duty death is traumatic enough; multiple fatalities like those that occurred in Charleston, SC, Worcester, MA, and Hackensack, NJ, to mention but a few, are devastating. The 343 FDNY firefighters who were killed on 9/11 was beyond comparison. Every firefighter fatality has far-reaching effects that may last days, months, years and even lifetimes.

As has been past practice, investigations into the latest line-of-duty death by local, state and federal jurisdictions will commence. These inquiries will examine in great detail the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident. Hopefully, lessons will be learned from the incident and other firefighters and departments will learn from it. The lessons learned must be incorporated into standard operating procedures and repeated in everyday training so all members are on the same page while operating at an incident or on the fireground.

I bring this up because there was a lot of discussion in the Philadelphia news media immediately after the fire about who was responsible for the vacant building and its condition. After receiving complaints about the factory from neighbors, the city was going to take the building owners to court in the near future for not maintaining the structure and for owing back taxes. The city fire marshal is working to determine the cause of the fire and whether someone set it.

Whatever the outcome, it is too late to do anything that can change the course of events and bring Lieutenant Robert Neary, 58, a 38-year veteran, and Firefighter Daniel Sweeney, 25, a six-year veteran, both assigned to Ladder 10, back to life. Two other firefighters remain hospitalized while recovering from their injuries. We all grieve in our own ways. We respect each family’s wishes. Some families do not want a big funeral. Some do not want city officials they may not care for speaking about their family members where firefighters have not had a contract in several years, all making it harder on them during their grieving process.

Sad as these two deaths are, the next related news item is even harder to fathom. After Philadelphia firefighters attended the wakes for the deceased firefighters, off-duty members gathered in a tavern when a thief cut open prize baskets containing gift cards and hid them in his pocket. The items were to be used in a fund-raising raffle to raise money for the families.

On the day I was writing this editorial, a line-of-duty death occurred in the FDNY and several others were reported to the U.S. Fire Administration. There are always Monday-morning quarterbacks – civilians and firefighters – who second-guess operations without having all the facts and those who offer their opinions, which they are entitled to do. But it seems lately we can’t even bury our fallen firefighters before all the bickering, finger-pointing and second-guessing starts. How about letting them rest in peace before their funerals? The rest of us have a lifetime to question and complain.

HARVEY EISNER is editor-in-chief of Firehouse® and a retired assistant chief of the Tenafly, NJ, Fire Department, which he joined in 1975 and served as chief of department for 12 years. He also was a firefighter in the Stillwater, OK, Fire Department for three years while attending Oklahoma State University. Eisner is an honorary assistant chief of the FDNY and program director for the Firehouse Expo, Firehouse World and Firehouse Central conferences. He has covered many major fires and disasters and interviewed numerous fire service leaders for Firehouse®. He edited the book WTC – In Their Own Words, published by Cygnus.