Report notes errors that led to death of firefighter

October 13, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

A year after a veteran firefighter was killed responding to a blaze in Greektown, Baltimore fire officials released an investigative report that blamed the death on more than a dozen errors and safety violations - including miscommunication and possible equipment misuse.

Allan M. Roberts, who had been a firefighter for 19 years, was killed in the blaze Oct. 10 last year after he entered a rowhouse at 514 S. Macon St. with two other firefighters. As the firefighters retreated from the building, Roberts collapsed inches from the front door and could not be rescued.

The 314-page report - which follows a preliminary report obtained by The Sun in April - found 14 problems, including that fire crews behind the home sprayed water on the fire as Roberts and others entered the building from the front. Water flowing in from outside a building can trap heat and steam - endangering firefighters inside.

Though the cause is unclear, a valve regulating the flow of oxygen to Roberts' face mask was found in the off position when his body was recovered. The report suggests that Roberts might have accidentally shut the valve as he tried to open it for more air.

In a statement released yesterday, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon said she had been briefed on the report.

"It is my hope that we have learned from the mistakes that took place on that day, and I sincerely believe our fire department has put measures in place to reduce the risk of a similar event happening again," the statement read.

But few of the more than two dozen recommendations in the report offer any changes to the way the department fights fires. Instead, the report repeatedly suggests that the fire might not have been fatal if procedures already in place had been followed more rigorously.

"Most of the proposed solutions involve adhering to established policies and procedures regarding incident command, unit operations, personal protective equipment, communications and firefighter safety," the report reads.

According to the report, the fire was caused by an electrical fault in a hot-water heater. The house was receiving electricity through an illegal hookup.

"As we have approached the one year anniversary of the Macon Street fire, we pause for a moment to honor and recognize Fire Fighter Allan M. Roberts who was killed in a fire that did not have to occur," read a statement released by a Fire Department spokesman. "But due to someone's neglect and irresponsibility he confronted his fate."

Roberts' death was the first in the line of duty for a city firefighter in more than a decade. It was followed months later by the death of a recruit, Racheal M. Wilson. She was killed in a fire training exercise in February where many safety violations were discovered.

In addition to the miscommunication between the crews in the back and front of the house on Macon, the report notes that the dispatcher incorrectly identified a unit as being responsible for rescue operations. Also, Roberts was not carrying his personal radio, and the report notes that radios carried into the house by other firefighters were damaged.

The report also notes that the incident commander did not designate what is known as a rapid intervention team, which is charged with rescuing firefighters who have entered buildings. The two firefighters who went into the house with Roberts tried to rescue him but were unable to because his body blocked the swing of the door, the report said.

Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers union, said that firefighters are engaged in dangerous work and that fire scenes are often chaotic.

"I think our members, including the incident commander, performed admirably," Fugate said. "I'm not trying to minimize the impact here, but we do have a very dangerous job, and there are times that things don't go as planned."

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