Fire Chiefs Talk About 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.

He said that the memorials that are erected after a line-of-duty-death are nice, but "the best monument you can build is the one inside yourself."

And in every case presented, several thorough investigations looked deep into each department's firefighting practices, looking to fix cracks in the system.

But If It Does Happen to You...

Coos Bay Chief Stan Gibson said that once it became clear that firefighters had died in the fire, crew members began to shut down. "The shock became too great for them," he said.

Almost immediately, fire officials knew they had to begin caring for the well-being of those left behind. He said he worked hard to maintain focus: on the fallen firefighter's families, on department members as a whole and even on community members.

"Your community is going to suffer with you."

On top of that, his normally small department was faced with an onslaught of media attention.

He said he needed support - and got it from chiefs around the country. He said he became immersed in being at the station with his firefighters and his wife had to remind him that she was there for him, too.

Gibson also offered advice for dealing with the investigations that will surely follow. Gibson said there would be lots of investigation, and therefore lots of finger-pointing and blame.

"You have to decide what part of the investigation you're going to buy into."

Finally, Gibson talked about what happens after the final firefighter is laid to rest and it's time to take the next step.

"There is a new normal," he said.

It will be hard as firefighters deal with their first landmark occasions after the fatal incident, like the first Christmas or the first birthday. Each department member is going to grieve differently, and department members will slowly begin to let go and move forward in their own time.

He said when firefighters quit saying "we should have done..." and began saying "we need to," he knew they were beginning to turn a corner.

Stay tuned to Firehouse.Com in the coming weeks to hear the session for yourself

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