While any sudden death will create a shockwave of emotions, a firefighter line-of-duty death generates exponentially more intense and, often, life-changing emotions.
Multiple firefighter line-of-duty deaths in a single incident not only take a severe emotional toll on family, friends and co-workers, but also on other fire departments, i.e., the brotherhood. Such grating, raw emotions often are fed by sleepless nights and endless worry. Memories of close-calls resurface when one is faced with stark evidence that firefighting is a damn dangerous job, and nagging questions never stop.
This week a blog by Robert Avsec that was posted on FIRE CHIEF’s Web site caused a great deal of controversy. Avsec, a former chief of the Chesterfield, (Va.) Fire Department commented on the Dec. 22, 2010, fire in an abandoned building that killed two Chicago firefighters and injured 16 others. Avsec was brutally honest in his questions about whether firefighters should have been inside the abandoned building searching for homeless people who may or may not have been there.
Avsec’s hard questions hit a nerve in large measure because not enough time has passed since the tragedy. Emotions still are too raw. Also, the investigation into the tragedy hasn’t been conducted. When it finally is, we will be in a better position to answer the questions that Avsec raised in his commentary.
Abandoned-building fires are not unusual this time of year. On Dec. 28, 2010, eight people died in a vacant warehouse in New Orleans. According to Butch Browning, Louisiana’s state fire marshal, the building, damaged by Hurricane Katrina five years ago, had been vacant and non-code compliant. “The cause of this fire was using a barrel to burn wood inside to keep warm,” Browning wrote.
Two days later, as a result of the fatalities and injuries that occurred in abandoned buildings in Chicago, New Orleans and two other cities, Denis Onieal, superintendent of the National Fire Academy, reissued the NFA’s “Coffee Break Training” bulletin that was written in 2009 after six Worcester, Mass., firefighters were killed in the abandoned storage facility in 1999. “Please share this Coffee Break Training with all operations personnel to remind them of the risks they face every day, and how they might prevent another tragedy,” Onieal said in a statement.
In a June 2009 article in the Washington Examiner, John Hall, the National Fire Protection Association’s division director for fire analysis and research, stated that the threat of empty-building fires has grown as empty homes multiply. According to the article, vacant homes nationwide topped 19 million earlier that year, up from 15.7 million in 2005, citing statistics from the Census Bureau.
The article further stated that the NFPA concluded that "the best way to prevent vacant building fires is to prevent vacant buildings." That will be easier said than done.
I spoke to a source in the Chicago Fire Department who reiterated that on Dec. 22, the first two companies had reports that there were people inside the burning building. “The building did not fall because of burned trusses,” he added, as Avsec had suggested.
Many are angered by Avsec’s commentary. “He should wait to comment until all the facts are out,” one Chicago chief stated. “The guys on the scene, they did follow the rules of engagement. This was an accident of epic proportions.”
The officer added that the day after the fatal fire, Chicago firefighters responded to another abandoned building and rescued two people.
That being said, let’s be honest: who hears about fires in an abandoned building and doesn’t wonder about the rest of the story? We all do, but who decides whether vagrants are worth looking for in a burning building?
These are tough questions at a most difficult time, but the Chicago Fire Department has proved repeatedly over the past decade — whether the Cook County Building fire or LaSalle Street fire — that they share their story. Give them time.
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