Fire Chiefs Talk About Multiple Line-of-Duty Deaths

Almost a week before two Boston firefighters were killed in a restaurant blaze, fire chiefs from around the country discuss the subject of multiple line-of-duty deaths


ATLANTA--

Almost a week before two Boston firefighters were killed in a restaurant blaze, fire chiefs from around the country met at Fire Rescue International to discuss the subject of multiple line-of-duty deaths.

Each of the six panelists came from a department that had experienced an incident that claimed the life of more than one firefighter.

The session was a combination of emotional retelling and stern lecture as they broke down each tragic incident: what happened, what went wrong, the lasting effect a death has on a department and tips for coping with multiple lodd's in the future.

From Calm to Chaos

Sometimes, the deadliest fire ground is one where crews are comfortable and relaxed. That's because, panel members said, firefighters can let their guard down and make mistakes that can quickly lead to fatalities.

"This should have been a 15 to 20 minute fire," said Coos Bay Chief Stan Gibson.

"If not for the deaths, this fire wouldn't even have made news."

Gibson's department lost three men in a November 2002 fire at an auto body shop. They were trapped after part of the structure's roof collapsed.

"Everyone needs to be prepared because you don't know what could happen next."

Colleen Walz, Deputy Chief of the Pittsburgh Fire Bureau, said her department suffered devastating losses at the scene of a fire that was nearly over.

Three firefighters were killed and 29 were injured on March 13, 2004 at the site of a fire at a historic church. The building's steeple collapsed as firefighters extinguished remaining hot spots.

"I will never know what the World Trade Center felt like," Walz said, "but I do remember that day."

She said there were major communication break-downs at the site of the fire - and the firefighters who were in the church vestibule when the steeple toppled should not even have been there.

"The biggest lesson I learned was to never let your guard down."

Retired New York City Chief Pete Hayden illustrated that point in his retelling of New York's infamous Black Sunday. The January 23, 2005 blaze sent six firefighters fleeing the dangerous blaze the through the only exit they had - a window four stories up.

Two firefighters died as a result, and others were badly injured. And, Hayden said, the fire wasn't much different than the kind the FDNY faces every day.

"These were good companies," Hayden said of the crews who responded that day. "Maybe complacency set in."

Don't Let This be You "I hate this," said Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator Charlie Dickinson. "You never want to talk about things going desperately wrong in your department."

Dickinson was a chief with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire when three firefighters were killed in the Feb. 14 1995 blaze. The three had run out of air and were unable to escape the burning home.

Speaking about the responsibility of those in command and the irreversibility of a wrong decision, Dickinson was emotional and emphatic.

"We promised the families we'd take care of their firefighters," he said.

"You need to pay attention. It's never routine. Once it happens, you can't back up - you can't change it."

Solutions

"Training, drills, training and more drills," are what Philadelphia Fire Department Commissioner Lloyd Ayers says it takes to lower the chances of having a firefighter die in action.

He was there to discuss an August 2004 fire in which two firefighters were killed. They were trapped in the basement of a row home during a one-alarm blaze.

"We have state-of-the-art equipment, but if we don't have SOP's, what is it worth?"

And when it comes to firefighter education, fire officials make sure everyone has a thorough understanding of the basics.

He said Philadelphia's department has studied which demographics are hot-spots for fire (the poor, young and elderly) and targeted them through education - to help stop the fire before it starts.

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