California Fire Department Cited in Death of Captain

The Santa Clara County Fire Department did not have a plan for dealing with live electrical wires at the scene of a fire, a serious failure that resulted in the death of fire Capt. Mark McCormack, according to state safety investigators.

In its first rebuke of a public safety agency in two years, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said the fire department committed three safety violations in connection with the Feb. 13 fire, and recommended the department be assessed $44,100 in fines.

Fire Chief Ben Lopes expressed ''surprise'' at the action, saying he was led to believe by Cal-OSHA officials that the investigation would not result in citations.

''I think we really need to sit down with them and walk through these issues,'' Lopes said Friday, adding that he is ''seriously considering'' an appeal.

McCormack's family could not be reached for comment.

McCormack, 36, became the department's first member to die in action when he brushed against a 12,000-volt live power line that had fallen during a fire in Los Gatos on Feb. 13.

The downed line was dangling from a pine tree, just inches from wet ground, when McCormack came into contact. Other firefighters apparently knew the line was hot and were waiting for a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. crew to arrive to shut the power off. It is unclear whether McCormack knew of the danger. His death rattled his department as well as firefighters across the state; some 3,000 people attended memorial services at HP Pavilion in San Jose.

Cal-OSHA found that the county fire department violated three safety regulations. Each was classified as a ''serious accident-related'' violation.

First, it said the department didn't have a written procedure within its illness and injury prevention program for how firefighters should handle hot power lines. Regulators recommended an $8,100 penalty for the oversight.

Lopes insisted the department's response plan is ''extensive.''

Cal-OSHA proposed an $18,000 fine for failing to erect barriers at the fire scene to keep people away from the downed power line.

''I'm not sure barriers are practical for emergency scene operations,'' Lopes responded.

Third, Cal-OSHA cited the department for not keeping firefighters away from an energized overhead power line. Regulators proposed an $18,000 fine for this violation.

Lopes responded that this may also be impractical if firefighters are to do their job effectively.

''As emergency responders, I'm not sure we can work outside of energized lines. We have procedures for how to do that safety,'' he said. While no loss of life is acceptable, he said, ''There are risks inherent to the job. Our job is to try to control or mitigate those risks to the best extent possible.''

The fire department has 15 working days to fix the cited problems and pay the penalties. Or it can, within the same time period, file an appeal with Cal-OSHA's appeal board. That appeals process, which includes a trial-like hearing before an administrative law judge, can take 18 months or even longer, said Cal-OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer.

CAl-OSHA hasn't cited a public safety agency since May 2003, when it found the San Francisco Fire Department violated standard industry safety practices after a firefighter fell from a firetruck and died of brain injuries.

''For the most part, fire and rescue agencies are very safety conscious, and they do run a pretty ship-shape operation. So it's not very common,'' Fryer said.

Liz Kniss, chairwoman of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, said she was ''shocked'' at the citations, ''not just because there hasn't been a fatality in more than 50 years, but beyond that, because Chief Lopes has done an exceptional job as chief. However, that doesn't mean that we could not in some way look at what happened and learn from it.''

A fire department investigation eventually determined that the fire was caused by an unattended candle or incense stick in a room that officials said was illegally added to the multimillion-dollar house.