Union claims fire deaths were 'preventable'

In call­ing for Com­mis­sion­er Lloyd Ay­ers’ resig­na­tion, Loc­al 22 cites 'fatal mis­takes' in the fire de­part­ment's re­sponse to the April 9 fire in East Kens­ing­ton.

Loc­al 22, the uni­on that rep­res­ents Phil­adelphia’s fire­fight­ers, has called for the resig­na­tion of Fire De­part­ment Com­mis­sion­er Lloyd Ay­ers, along with two top mem­bers of his staff, say­ing fire de­part­ment com­mand­ers made mis­takes in hand­ling the fatal April 9 blaze at the Buck Ho­siery build­ing.

Dur­ing a press con­fer­ence on Tues­day, rep­res­ent­at­ives of the fire­fight­ers’ uni­on said that Phil­adelphia Fire De­part­ment of­fi­cials in com­mand as a fire tore through the build­ing at York and Jasper streets were not prop­erly trained for the situ­ation, which led to im­prop­er hand­ling of the re­sponse.

Bill Gault, pres­id­ent of the uni­on, called the deaths of Lt. Robert Neary and Fire­fight­er Daniel Sweeney, who per­ished in the blaze, “pre­vent­able.”

“We can­not let an­oth­er of our own die as a res­ult of in­com­pet­ent lead­er­ship,” he told re­port­ers.

Fire of­fi­cials dis­puted the uni­on’s claims.

Gault out­lined the uni­on’s con­cerns, say­ing that first and fore­most, Ay­ers was not on scene dur­ing the fire de­part­ment’s re­sponse un­til well after a sec­tion of the build­ing col­lapsed, killing the two men.

In his stead, Gault said, Ern­est Har­gett, deputy com­mis­sion­er of op­er­a­tions, and John Devlin, deputy com­mis­sion­er of tech­nic­al ser­vices, were or­gan­iz­ing the fire de­part­ment’s ef­forts on the scene of the five-alarm blaze.

Uni­on rep­res­ent­at­ives said Har­gett, to whom the re­spons­ib­il­ity should have fallen, in­stead gave In­cid­ent Com­mand­er du­ties to Devlin.

In present­ing pho­tos taken that even­ing, Mike Bresnan, a fire­fight­er and re­cord­ing sec­ret­ary for the uni­on, said that both Devlin and Har­gett were “un­qual­i­fied to lead,” not­ing that the uni­on be­lieves there was nev­er a “col­lapse zone” es­tab­lished in the area sur­round­ing the blaze.

Bresnan ex­plained that a col­lapse zone should be meas­ured from the base to about one and a half times the height of any wall around a burn­ing build­ing and should be es­tab­lished with cau­tion tape by an on-scene safety of­ficer.

Uni­on mem­bers presen­ted pho­tos taken the even­ing of the fire that pur­portedly show fire­fight­ers work­ing well with­in an area that should have been closed off as a col­lapse zone.

In fact, fire­fight­ers can be seen stand­ing on rubble of a wall that had already fallen while pump­ing wa­ter in­to the burn­ing build­ing.

An­oth­er photo shows a fire­fight­er stand­ing on the roof of a sec­tion of the burn­ing build­ing after a large por­tion of the wall had already crumbled.

Bresnan said a ma­jor­ity of the build­ing had already col­lapsed be­fore the four fire­fight­ers were sent in. The four in­cluded the fallen fire­fight­ers as well as fire­fight­ers Pat Nally, who suffered ser­i­ous in­jur­ies, and Fran­cis Cheney.

Along with these con­cerns, uni­on rep­res­ent­at­ives said that the fire was lim­ited to five alarms, which wouldn’t al­low for a call for ex­tra man­power from any units not op­er­at­ing that even­ing, due to the city’s on­go­ing fire de­part­ment brown­outs.

“More alarms mean more man­power,” said Gault.

In fact, Gault said that the men who died should have nev­er been in the burn­ing struc­ture in the first place.

He said that to de­term­ine if fire­fight­ers should enter a build­ing, the de­part­ment de­term­ines levels of im­port­ance. For ex­ample, if someone is alive in the build­ing and needs to be res­cued, that’s con­sidered “high im­port­ance,” and is cause to enter the build­ing. Fire­fight­ers could also enter a build­ing to re­trieve valu­ables, but that’s a lower pri­or­ity, he ex­plained.

Gault said that there was neither lives in need of sav­ing nor any­thing of value in the long-va­cant Buck Ho­siery build­ing when it burned.

“There was no reas­on for  them to go in there,” said Gault.

Richard Dav­is­on, ex­ec­ut­ive chief for the city’s fire de­part­ment, said that col­lapse zones were es­tab­lished, safety of­ficers were on scene and, dur­ing a press con­fer­ence held last week after the uni­on presen­ted its claims, May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter gave his full sup­port to Ay­ers, Har­gett and Devlin.

Asked about the con­cerns that the alarm was kept at five alarms and if the fire de­part­ment would be con­duct­ing an in­tern­al in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to how events were handled that even­ing — as the uni­on has re­ques­ted — Dav­is­on said that in­stead, the de­part­ment was await­ing the res­ults of a grand jury in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the fire.

He also said the Fire Mar­shal’s of­fice is do­ing an in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the cause of the fire. He de­clined to com­ment fur­ther.

On Thursday, the uni­on of­fi­cials re­spon­ded to the may­or’s press con­fer­ence, re­as­sert­ing their be­lief that a col­lapse zone was nev­er es­tab­lished.

“We stand be­hind our as­ser­tions and find it disin­genu­ous of city of­fi­cials to ac­cuse us of ly­ing about [the Phil­adelphia Fire De­part­ment’s] tac­tic­al er­rors on the fatal Kens­ing­ton fire, while of­fer­ing no spe­cif­ic re­but­tals, re­fus­ing to an­swer re­port­ers’ ques­tions, and hid­ing be­hind the grand jury in­vest­ig­a­tion,” wrote Frank Keel, Loc­al 22 spokes­per­son.

Re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man can be con­tac­ted at 215-354-3124 or hmit­man@bsmphilly.com.

You can reach at hmitman@bsmphilly.com.

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