TAMPA, FLA. – People wiped tears from their eyes as Vina Drennan described FDNY Firefighter Michael Warchola's last shift on the job – on Sept. 11.
He was retiring. He had plans. But, on Sept. 11, when the alarm sounded, he responded.
Drennan’s emotional address set the stage for Tampa 2. Over the next few days, the 16 Life Safety Initiatives – created 10 years ago – will be revisited. What’s working and what needs to be tweaked will be discussed.
The nearly 350 attendees include many of the who’s who in the nation’s fire service as well as some who weren’t even on the job a decade ago.
Regardless of the specific initiative, one common theme came though on all – the need for a cultural change. Crew resource management – the OK for firefighters to speak up if they see something unsafe – is encouraged.
Drennan relayed Warchola’s story because he saved the life of a rookie.
“They knew in their gut it was the big one,” she said of the firefighters seeing the smoke rising from the towers. “Ladder 5 was afraid of that tower. They had trained in that tower…”
A rookie firefighter who desperately wanted to go on the call that day was told to stay behind. But, he managed to sneak on the truck.
When he arrived however, he was ordered to go to a fire station to help with triage. He was threatened with severe disciplinary measures if he disobeyed and went into the towers with his crew.
He unwillingly complied. And, all the firefighters he rode to the incident with perished.
Drennan said because of Warchola’s tough decision, the FDNY lost 343 not 344 firefighters.
She challenged those in the audience to step up, and make those tough decisions. Doing so, she said will bring other firefighters home after their shifts.
Drennan’s husband was one of those who didn’t go home.
FDNY Commissioner Sal Cassano said a number of things have changed in his department over the past decade.
“Safety does trump everything….”
He said he never understood while people would make sure they and their families are buckled up in their personal vehicles, yet they get into a rig and don’t use a belt.
He lauded Mike Wilbur for his effort in a program to get the belts to go around a firefighter wearing turnout gear.
The department spent about $1M to retrofit rigs so belts will fit. In addition, vehicle data recorders will help enforce it.
“Responding deaths are preventable,” he added.
While firefighter deaths slowed down for a few years in a row, that wasn’t the case last year.
NFFF Executive Director Ron Siarnicki told the group it was not time to slow down. Heart attacks, strokes and not using seat belts are still killing firefighters.
He said the momentum needs to continue.