Eight years ago, six Worcester, Mass. firefighters were killed in a vacant building fire. The incident commander that night, District Chief Mike McNamee, and Captain Kevin Maloney came to Firehouse Expo to describe where the department is today after implementing the NIOSH investigation recommendations and the recommendations of their own department's board of inquiry."We're a different department than we were in 1999," McNamee said.At Firehouse Expo in 2000, McNamee told Firehouse.com News, "It isn't going to go away. It is part of everyone who was there, for the rest of their lives." Today he says, "We are all changed people, all of us who were there."
But at the same time, 25 percent of the 406 firefighters now on board are new blood and were not around for that tragic event. Although they are not as emotionally close to the incident, McNamee said older members are working to instill in them the importance of that history and the lessons learned. "We're different in the way we operate, train, and even our attitudes are different," he said.
Back then they took for granted that if anything went wrong, they could take care of it, McNamee said. Now, he says they teach firefighters to be prepared to take care of themselves.
For two weeks after the incident, during the cold New England winter, the department did nothing but search the burned out rubble and recover the bodies of the firefighters, and then bury them one by one. Outside departments took care of the city while they mourned. "We vowed never to forget and to make something good come out of this awful thing," McNamee said.
"We're not a perfect department but we're striving to be better than we were."
NIOSH and their own board of inquiry found similar issues to focus on to improve the department. Such things as identification and fire preplanning of vacant and abandoned buildings were high priorities. The department actually posts signs on these buildings now as warnings to firefighters: a slash for abandoned buildings and an X for buildings with dangerous interiors.
The department has also implemented the use of thermal imaging cameras, thanks to equipment donations, and trained most firefighters as rapid intervention team members. A team is now sent on every fire call, and members are better prepared to handle searches in large spaces.
They have gone from 30-minute to 45-minute bottles for SCBA, issued radios to all firefighters and guide ropes for fire incidents. They are also working with a company in developing a high-tech three dimensional firefighter tracking system.
Another project has been the compilation of building inspection data, so that up-to-date building reports can be provided to the IC for scene size-up. While the information is now available, it is not yet available on computer.
Maloney says that firefighter safety is now the number one priority of the department. "We had to look hard at ourselves after that fire. You can survive. You can be better. It took five years to get some of the changes made. We continued to move forward. We've healed by and large."
The tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina was an ugly reminder of where they had been. "It was like getting punched in the gut. I said God no, not again." McNamee said. "I could identify."
A major training effort, the result of both investigations, is now attracting national participation: the Worcester Fire Fighter Safety and Survival Seminar.