Neighboring Fire Chief's "Station" Seminars Anger West Warwick FFs
BY ZACHARY R. MIDER
Journal Staff Writer
A Coventry fire chief has been traveling the East Coast, speaking at conferences about The Station nightclub fire in neighboring West Warwick.
Chief Brian Hoxsie says he wants to tell the rest of the country what Rhode Island has learned about fire safety.
But his actions have enraged some West Warwick firefighters. They say he has no business speaking with authority about the fire, since his department was not in charge of fighting it -- it just provided rescue trucks, as did most Rhode Island communities.
"We're not real happy with him. That's as unprofessional as can be," said Kevin P. Tellier, president of the West Warwick firefighters union. "I wonder if the people running the conferences know that this man had nothing to do with the fire?"
Adding to the firefighters' ire, fliers promoting an upcoming fire chiefs' conference in Georgia portray Hoxsie, the headline speaker, as "incident commander on the scene" of The Station fire.
Hoxsie says he has never claimed to be the commander, and that the flier was "misprinted." The conference's organizer concurred, saying the mistake was corrected on a conference Web site after Hoxsie notified her about it earlier this month.
Nevertheless, Tellier said he believes Hoxsie, chief of the Tiogue and Washington Fire Districts in Coventry and the incoming president of the state fire chiefs' association, has inflated his role at The Station for his own glory.
"I don't know, is he going to write a book next?" Tellier said. "I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I was him."
"IT'S AN EMOTIONAL issue, and I probably didn't understand how emotional until the last few days," Hoxsie said yesterday. Since the erroneous flier came to light more than a week ago, the questions have been pouring in, he said.
"A lot of my guys [firefighters] are taking some heat over this," he added. "I know that I have upset a good deal of friends in this."
Hoxsie took his first speaking engagement in June, about four months after the fire, at a conference of the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs in Roanoke, Va. He says he gave the two-hour talk as a "favor to a friend," a Florida fire chief with whom he serves on a national committee.
He accepted no payment, but was reimbursed for travel and lodging, he said.
"The gist of my presentation is fire prevention," Hoxsie said. "I spent a good portion of time at The Station fire. I came away with the feeling that we need to better educate the fire service, then have the fire service educate the general public, to keep this from happening again."
As chief of a neighboring department, Hoxsie said he spent the night of the fire overseeing the movements of five or six Coventry rescue trucks. He went to the fire scene and remained in phone contact with the EMTs under his command, and met with chiefs of other neighboring departments to coordinate the rescue effort, he said.
West Warwick firefighters, under Chief Charles D. Hall, remained in charge of firefighting throughout the night.
"It's West Warwick's fire and that's that," said Tellier, the West Warwick union president, explaining the chain of command. "We ask for a rescue [truck], he sends a rescue, we send him a thank-you."
During Hoxsie's presentation in Virginia, he also spoke about the legislation drafted in the wake of the fire; as an official in the state fire chiefs' association, he had helped prepare presentations to the panel that drafted the legislation, he said.
"This is an emotional issue for West Warwick, and there isn't anybody from West Warwick talking about the fire for various reasons. I feel it's important for the fire service and the general public that we get some information."
West Warwick firefighters have said little publicly about the fire at The Station, and some members of the department and town officials have been named as defendants in lawsuits filed by victims and their families.
While Rhode Islanders have been inundated with news about the fire, the rest of the country knows little about it, Hoxsie said. Bringing the news to them, he said, is an important first step in fire prevention.
NOT LONG AFTER the Virginia conference, Hall, the West Warwick fire chief, asked Hoxsie not to speak at any more events.
"He expressed his displeasure with me doing it," Hoxsie said. (Hall did not return a call seeking comment yesterday.)
In October, Hoxsie gave another talk, this time at a conference of the South Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs in Rock Hill, S.C. Again, Hoxsie said he was not paid, but his travel and lodging were paid by the conference.
Hoxsie says he never presented himself as having been in charge at the fire. Norman Knight, a South Carolina fire chief and the executive secretary of the organization, would not comment yesterday on how Hoxsie portrayed himself.
But one of the people who attended the October conference, Chief Douglas Eggiman of the Midway Fire Department, in Pawley's Island, S.C., wrote this in a Web newsletter to his staff:
"I also talked to Chief Brian Hoxsie of Coventry Emergency Services in Warwick, Rhode Island. He was the first Chief Officer on the scene of the Station Nightclub Fire."
In a recent interview, Eggiman said he couldn't remember how Hoxsie portrayed himself, but that he didn't think Hoxsie passed himself off as the incident commander. "I don't recall being under that impression," he said.
HOXSIE HAS TWO more speaking engagements lined up for February. On Feb. 20, the anniversary of The Station fire, he is scheduled to headline a special seminar of the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs in Norcross, Ga.
Called "Anatomy of a Tragedy: The Station Nightclub Fire, W. Warwick, R.I. -- Education Through Prevention," the $150 seminar is to feature a three-hour "in-depth" presentation by Hoxsie, followed by presentations by Georgia fire officials and a panel discussion.
Fliers for that event called Hoxsie "incident commander" at the fire. "He did not tell us that he was the incident commander on scene. That was a misprint on our part," said Sacha Dick, executive director of the association.
Now, a version of the flier on a Web site calls him "one of the first to arrive on scene."
On Feb. 28, Hoxsie is scheduled to appear at a Virginia Fire Chiefs Association event for a 1 1/2-hour presentation. He said he is not expecting compensation, other than travel and lodging, for either event.
But in light of the recent furor, Hoxsie said he is considering canceling the engagements.
"It's an unfortunate misunderstanding," he said. "I don't know at this point how to correct it."
Zachary R. Mider can be reached at 277-8068 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Washington/Tiogue are two departments in Coventry RI that merged late last year, I believe it was, and their apparatus and personell were likely among the first mutual aid to arrive at the Station.