Safety lapses in fire death

Coordination failed in firefighter's death in burning house in October, report says

April 28, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun reporter

Mistakes and safety violations contributed to the death of a Baltimore firefighter as he battled a blaze on Macon Street in October, a draft investigative report says, revealing more problems for a department still struggling after a recruit died in February.

The report, not yet made public but obtained by The Sun, says that firefighters in back of the house trained their hoses on the flames as Allan M. Roberts and others went in through the front. The fire turned water from the hoses into steam, increasing the heat inside the building.

"The practice of using hose lines in an attempt to extinguish a fire from the exterior while other members are making an interior attack is unacceptable and dangerous," the report concludes. Roberts, struggling to get air flowing from his oxygen tank, apparently pulled his mask off, collapsed unconscious and later died, the report says.

His death, the first in the line of duty for a city firefighter in 11 years, was followed four months later by the death of the recruit, Racheal M. Wilson. She was mortally injured in a live fire training exercise riddled with safety violations that prompted the firing of the training academy chief and a shake-up in command.

The fire in which Roberts died broke out Oct. 10 and was first reported about 2:20 p.m. inside a Southeast Baltimore rowhouse at 514 S. Macon St. in Greektown. Several people told 911 operators that people were trapped inside, though that report turned out to be wrong.

The Fire Department report lays out a chaotic scene commanded by Battalion Chief Reese Wingate III, a 34-year veteran. Firefighters struggled to get to the second floor because of the reports of trapped people, even as other firefighters began to pour water on the flames from outside.

Firefighters conduct exterior attacks on fires only after they determine the building has been lost. In this case, the report says, firefighters in front of the rowhouse, where no flames were visible, didn't communicate with firefighters in back, where flames were shooting out windows.

"Members in the rear stated in their interviews that they assumed that the entire building was involved in fire because of the conditions in the rear," the report says. "This led them to believe that no one would be making an interior attack."

Inside, where Roberts was helping to pull a hose, the heat became so great that the firefighters had to retreat, and they fell onto each other just as they reached the front door. Roberts was pronounced dead at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, and rookies Brandon Mattox and James Butler suffered second-degree burns on their arms.

A Fire Department spokesman, Rick Binetti, declined to comment on the specifics of the report, but he said that the mistakes did not represent a broader problem. He said the deaths of Roberts and Wilson "don't reflect what the Baltimore City Fire Department is. We have thousands of fire grounds a year. This death of a firefighter is a rare occurrence."

He said the final report would be released in the next six weeks.

Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon, focused on new safety initiatives at the fire department. "The culture, including the training, is changing," he said.

McCarthy said the mayor has reviewed the preliminary report and is concerned with "eerily similar problems" indicated by the two deaths. In both fires, reports noted a lack of communication between firefighters. Also, a rescue team was not present at either fire. The department said that was a critical failure in the death of Wilson but is not considered a significant contributor to Roberts' death.

Leaders from the department's two fire unions said the owner or occupants of the house should be blamed. The report says that the fire was caused by an electrical fault in a hot water heater in the basement and that the Macon Street house was receiving electricity through an illegal hookup.

Both union leaders acknowledged that mistakes were made at the fire, but they played down any parallels between the deaths of Roberts and Wilson.

"There were some problems, absolutely," said Rick Schluderberg, president of the union that represents firefighters. "The fire ground is not a training exercise."

Stephan G. Fugate, the president of the Fire Officers Union, said, "Allan Roberts was an accident; we have a dangerous job."

The report lays out a detailed account of how the fire on Macon Street was fought.

Firefighters from two engine companies pulled hoses through the front door. Roberts, a 19-year veteran, grasped the nozzle of one hose, with help from Mattox and Butler.

Because of heavy smoke and "extreme heat," the three crawled on their hands and knees, struggling to get up the stairs because they believed there was someone trapped.

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