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 firstname.lastname@example.org.