Fewer resources, greater risk for firefighters
By Bill Dedman, Globe Correspondent | January 31, 2005
LANCASTER — After the townspeople of Lancaster voted last fall not to provide a posthumous pension for volunteer firefighter Martin H. McNamara, the spotlight fell on the plight of his survivors and how unfair it all seemed.

Much less attention has been paid to how McNamara died and to the risks that firefighters in understaffed suburban and small town fire departments face every day.

The official cause of his death was smoke inhalation, but investigative reports from state and federal officials point to a deeper cause: This firefighter, like so many others, was a victim, in large measure, of municipal neglect.

When residents of a wood-frame apartment building reported smelling smoke at 3 a.m., Lancaster’s volunteers went for the fire engine. It didn’t start — not a new problem. Six minutes passed before a call went out to the next town for help.

McNamara was among the first Lancaster volunteers on the scene. He waited for help, then carried a hose line into a smoky basement with strangers from another department. For water they had to go to the so-called “sacred hydrant,” the only one in town they were sure would work.

Then came the fatal mistake: When firefighters set up a fan to blow out hot smoke and gases, they inadvertantly fueled the fire, forcing it right onto McNamara. Mayday calls went unheard because radios from different towns used different frequencies. Two hours passed before his body was pulled from the flooded basement.

It was a night of extraordinary misfortune, but it disclosed some all-too-ordinary failings in fire protection. Lancaster is like many suburban towns, here and across the country, where fire departments are not only taking longer to get to fires, but often arrive at the scene with too few people to do the job safely.

Such inadequate response increases property damage from fires, and the risks to the occupants of burning buildings. It also endangers the men and women who fight the fires.

In fact, most firefighters who die fighting a fire were working in substandard conditions, arriving too late with too few people, the Globe found when it examined federal records of fatal fires across the country. And, like McNamara, most of those who died were going into buildings with no one inside to save.

The newspaper looked at federal investigative reports of 52 fires that killed 80 firefighters between 1997 and 2004. Each of the firefighters died actually fighting a building fire, not from heart attacks or motor vehicle accidents rushing to a fire.

In only 35 of the 52 fires could the department get even one firefighter to the scene within 6 minutes.

In only 27 of the fires could four firefighters muster within 6 minutes, the minimum attack force recommended by the National Fire Protection Association.

And in only 18 of the fires did a full force of 15 firefighters arrive within 10 minutes, the manpower standard for safe and effective work at a basic building fire.

Facing a lack of resources, some fire chiefs are starting to say the unthinkable: If they cannot get there soon enough, with enough people to do the job safely, maybe they should stop sending firefighters into burning buildings.

“We’re a can-do organization. We give it the old college try,” said Chief Ronald J. Siarnicki, former chief in Prince George’s County, Md., who keeps count of line-of-duty deaths as executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. “But maybe we need to stop accepting a five-person crew to cover an entire town. Maybe we need to say, ‘We don’t have the resources to do this job.’ We’re losing firefighters, and there are so many near misses.”

While the number of fires in America has declined sharply, firefighter deaths are holding steady at about 100 a year — not counting Sept. 11, 2001. More than half die from heart attacks and motor vehicle accidents. The building fires studied occurred in a mix of volunteer and career departments, from Memphis and New York City to Scenic Loop, Texas.

There is no way to be certain that understaffing or slow response was the principal cause of any firefighter’s death. Each incident is unique, each with its own fatal mistake or just bad luck. So instead of causes, investigators talk in terms of contributing factors, of heightened risks.

Delays and short staffing add to the risk, said Vincent Dunn, a retired New York City deputy fire chief and author on fire safety. Dunn, an outside reviewer of the federal investigative reports, examined the Globe’s findings.

An exploding propane tank, a falling garage door, a collapsing floor, a sudden flashover as the heat builds — hazards mount, Dunn said, as minutes pass.

“The more firefighters you have, the faster you can put out the fire,” he said. “Chances of a firefighter’s death increase the longer a fire burns.”

Fewer firefighters, more duties

A first alarm for a house fire in Boston summons 25 firefighters: three engine companies, two ladder trucks, a rescue company, and a district chief. If the first responders declare a “working fire,” 12 more firefighters are on the way. That’s 37 firefighters for a one-alarm fire.

Between that level of staffing in Boston, and the limited volunteer force in a small town like Lancaster, rest the mostly prosperous suburbs, which pay for full-time firefighters but rarely enough of them. Safety standards call for a minimum of four firefighters on a fire engine or ladder truck, but some suburban fire chiefs say it is common for them to run short with three, two, even one.

The reason is simple: Even as the population has grown and fire departments have taken on additional duties such as ambulance calls, the overall number of firefighters has declined in the state. The firefighters union estimates that Massachusetts has lost about 1,000 out of 13,000 firefighters since 1981, when the state’s Proposition 2A took effect, limiting property tax increases. Nationally, the number of full-time firefighters is essentially unchanged, though the volume of emergency calls has doubled.

“Station closed. For emergencies call 911,” reads a sign at one of Bridgewater’s two fire stations. There are quite a few others like it in the region. In Milton, meanwhile, on Boston’s southern border, there is sometimes only one man to operate a ladder truck.

“With one man, it becomes a transportation vehicle, not a firefighting vehicle,” said Deputy Fire Chief John Foley in Milton. “We don’t have a fully staffed ladder company. A full staff would be four. We have one man. I don’t think we’re alone in that deficiency.”

That’s when the truck is running at all. Milton’s front-line ladder truck, a 1967 relic, is out with a failed transmission. For now, Milton is borrowing a truck from Boston.

To field a full force, fire departments in the suburbs must rely on their neighbors. Fewer and fewer departments are able to put out their own fires, records indicate. In volunteer and career departments across the nation, the share of fires resulting in calls for assistance more than doubled from 1986 to 2002, the latest year on record, the Globe found. In volunteer departments, the need for outside help rose from 18.5 percent in 1986 to 38 percent in 2002. The figure also doubled in career fire departments, from 4.9 percent to 10.5 percent.

That interdependence could be seen as a sign of healthy cooperation, except that more than two-thirds of the help was reported as “mutual aid,” the spur-of-the-moment help that is usually called in only after the first fire engine has arrived at the fire.

Only 28 percent of the time was the help “automatic aid,” in which both departments respond immediately to the first alarm.

“Mutual aid means that you get there, you decide you need more help, and you call another town,” explained Will Maker, acting fire chief in Ipswich, north of Boston.

Why does it take 15 people to fight a simple fire? Because, the national standards say, these roles need to be filled to ensure safety: a scene commander, a water pump operator, two firefighters on each of two hose lines, a support person to help lay each hose, two people to search for survivors, two people to cut a hole in the roof or break windows to let out the deadly smoke, a person to operate the aerial ladder, and two people standing by to rescue any trapped firefighters.

“Any idiot can see that the more people you have, the more tasks you can accomplish,” said Battalion Chief Billy Goldfeder, who serves in a department in a suburb of Cincinnati and keeps track of firefighter injuries and near misses on his website, FirefighterCloseCalls.com. “We’ve got to get water on the fire to cool it. We’ve got to ventilate to get gases out. We’ve got to do search and rescue. Which one of these tasks would you like us not to perform?”

“We’ll trim one more firefighter, we’ll close this station, and over time it ends up with tragic results. Look at Keokuk.”

That’s Keokuk, Iowa, which lost three firefighters and the three children they were trying to save. When the town’s four available firefighters showed up at a house fire in 1999, a woman was out front, covered in soot and yelling, “My babies are inside.” Apparently the plastic trays from the twins’ high chairs were left on the stove, and the 4-year-old turned on a burner.

Even in that situation, despite their instinct to save lives, firefighters should not have gone into that house, said their chief, Mark Wessel. The three were killed instantly by a fire flashover. The children were probably already dead.

“I’ll never accept the deaths of the men as acceptable, even though there were three children in there,” Wessel said. “Did they do what any red-blooded American firefighter would do? Yes, they did.”

His department has the same staffing today. “To the people in the town, I’m not sure it sunk in why it happened,” he said. “I think to the layperson, it was just a matter of bad luck, bad timing.”

The lesson he learned that day, Wessel said, is “if you have inadequate resources, what you need to do is slow down your operation. We should have focused more on the hose, less on the mother screaming. Four firefighters is not enough, not the way we did it. . . . I’ve learned that we can’t do what those in the big cities do.”

When the Globe reviewed the 52 building fires in which firefighters died, this also stood out: the needlessness of the loss. In only 14 of the fires was there even a suspicion that someone might be inside. In all the rest, firefighters were let into a locked building by the owner or were told by occupants or first responders that the building was empty. In only six of the 52 fires was there actually anyone in the building.

The list of firefighters who died in unoccupied buildings includes men like Los Angeles firefighter Joseph Dupee, a father of one, who was fighting a 1998 fire at Pacific Bird and Supply, a pet food factory.

And fire Captain Ralph Stott Jr., a father of two, who died in 2002 while battling a blaze at Russell’s Garage and Body Shop in Terre Haute, Ind.

And firefighter Steve Fierro, whose children were 16 and 12 when he died last year in Carthage, Mo., while trying to save Bronc Buster’s Bar Restaurant and Lounge.

A department in disarray

Before the fire that killed Marty McNamara, the Lancaster Fire Department was in disarray.

Taxpayers paid about $19 per capita per year for fire protection, one-sixth of the typical budget for towns in Eastern Massachusetts. There was no full-time chief. Half the volunteers lived out of town. And demoralized firefighters had “failed to adequately respond to a number of incidents,” a consultant for the town warned in September 2003, just two months before the blaze.

Still, in many ways the job hazards faced by McNamara were typical of those facing suburban and small-town firefighters every day: heavy reliance on aid from other departments, outdated equipment, insufficient training, manpower, and backup.

Only lazy smoke was showing when firefighters arrived at the old farmhouse, which had been converted into an apartment building. They were told immediately that everyone was out safely. McNamara arrived in 6 minutes, but only when the Clinton fire engine arrived 2 minutes later could he join them and enter the basement with a hose line.

“It didn’t look like a big deal,” John McLaughlin, the deputy fire chief of the career department in Clinton, told state investigators.

But it was — the fire was lurking in the basement’s suspended ceiling. Before they went into the building, Lancaster and Clinton firefighters had to trade gear. McNamara borrowed an oxygen bottle and mask from Clinton firefighters. The Clinton deputy borrowed a Lancaster radio so that he could talk with the scene commander.

McNamara was a 31-year-old call firefighter, paid only by the job. He had basic training as a Level 1 firefighter, and had taken many additional classes, but lacked the Level 2 certification that many full-time departments require.

He was at the nozzle of the hose line in the basement with Deputy Chief McLaughlin when the attempt by firefighters outside to vent the fire forced it instead across the basement, cutting off their exit.

“It basically got totally dark down there,” McLaughlin told state investigators. “Someone grabbed me as they were going by and pulled me up, but I fell back down again. . . . I took the regulator off my face piece and put my face to the ground to get air. I was crawling and trying to find the stairs. After I called the Mayday. . . . someone [reached] down and gave me a yank.” Only when he woke up in the hospital did he learn the name of the firefighter who had been with him on the hose line.

No one heard a Mayday call from the basement — each of the five fire departments at this fire had its own dispatchers, and no joint radio frequency.

When McNamara was lost in the basement, no fresh team of firefighters was standing by to hunt for him. An arriving crew was drafted, and after three tries they were able to retrieve his body.

Across the nation, firefighters face similar circumstances every day.

Equipment shortages: Nationwide, only two-thirds of firefighters are equipped with a self-contained breathing apparatus, and only a quarter of fire departments can communicate by radio with all the departments they work with, a survey by the National Fire Protection Association and US Fire Administration found in 2003.

Missed communications: If there had been a regional dispatch center, investigators said, dispatchers could have relayed missed messages between departments. This is a particular problem in Massachusetts, which has 267 dispatch centers answering calls to 911 and handling emergency traffic, according to the latest Federal Communications Commission records. Maryland, with nearly as large a population, has 25.

Risky tactics: Small-town departments are increasingly undertaking aggressive interior assaults on fires. “Some of these smaller fire departments do not have the training, equipment, and backup personnel to safely accomplish these dangerous tactics,” warned a 1998 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Insufficient training: Massachusetts, like many states, has no state requirements for firefighter training. Training for firefighters is free at the state academy, but few fire departments have a budget to pay for training exercises with the neighboring departments they rely on for help.

No backup: After the Worcester fire that killed six firefighters in 1999, federal investigators warned of the need to have a rested crew standing by with safety equipment. But fire chiefs in the Boston suburbs say such a team is usually assembled only after the fire is nearly out.

Marty McNamara and his wife had two daughters, Molli, now 6, and Elizabeth, 3. Just five days after the fire, Claire McNamara gave birth to a third daughter, whom she named Marty.

A year after the fire, Lancaster’s voters drew national attention when they rejected by 16 votes a one-time tax increase of $650,000 to fund a pension for the family. The cost would have been about $260 for the average family’s tax bill. (The family did receive about $400,000 in accidental death benefits from local, state, and federal sources, and an undisclosed amount of charitable donations from townspeople and others.) Voters will face another ballot next Monday to decide whether the family should at least be eligible for health insurance at half price through the town’s plan.

On Beacon Hill, a legislative committee is working on a bill to require death benefits for volunteer and call firefighters, including the $650,000 for the McNamaras.

But there is no legislative effort to require working radios or oxygen bottles for firefighters, or training, or sufficient fire stations, or minimum staffing.

“It’s up to each community,” said the state fire marshal, Stephen D. Coan, “to decide what level of fire protection it’s willing to pay for.”

Lancaster’s elected leaders have increased the fire department budget by nearly 50 percent since the fire, and a new fire engine has been ordered. The first full-time chief has been hired, and attention is being paid to the dispatch system, equipment maintenance, and training.

“Tragically, we’ve learned what’s needed,” said Joanne Foster, chairwoman of the board of selectmen. “If we could look back and change things, anyone on our board or in our community would do that. We realize that resources are needed, and resources have become available.”

Still, the town has no full-time company of firefighters, no new radios, and no money to fix all the fire hydrants, although the bad ones will be color-coded as a warning.

“Some of the hydrants barely have enough water to take a shower, much less to put out a fire,” said the new chief, John Fleck. “The people on those streets are living with a false sense of security.”

Reprinted from The Boston Globe, Jan. 31, 2005


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