Bostonians are in awe of the physical courage shown by Boston Fire Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr. and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy, who died last week while fighting a nine-alarm blaze in a four-story rowhouse on Beacon Street. Now members of the Boston Fire Department must show an entirely different type of courage by looking unblinkingly at what roles — if any — the department’s own incident command structure, tactics, training, culture, communication system, or equipment may have played in the fatalities. Even more important, the department must invite independent investigators to do the same.
Firefighters are risk takers, by nature. But Boston firefighters are known to push the envelope in this area. That became clear last April when 13 deputy fire chiefs rebelled against former Fire Chief Steve Abraira who, among other things, wanted the department to embrace a national standard emphasizing that firefighter safety is “paramount’’ during all operations. Abraira’s view of risk management required near certainty that a life was “savable’’ before firefighters risked their own lives.
Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Finn, the incident commander at the fatal downtown fire, and former Deputy Chief John Hasson, who is now the acting fire commissioner, bristled at language that they interpreted as placing greater worth on the life of a firefighter than the citizens they had sworn to protect. The tradition of the Boston Fire Department, they stressed at the time, required the acceptance of greater risks by firefighters even if it only marginally increased the survival chances of a civilian. The deputies rejected Abraira’s safety standards that they deemed more appropriate for firefighting in spread-out suburbs than densely populated cities. And then they drove Abraira out of town.
It’s hard to know whether to place these deputies on a pedestal or try to shake some sense into them. Those who have never done the job can hardly know. But Matthew Tobia, chairman of the safety, health, and survival section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, believes that even at such a sensitive time as this, Boston firefighters need to consider if “tradition prevents them from seeing the best way forward’’ when it comes to adopting the latest research on firefighter safety.
An average of 100 firefighters die each year while on duty in the United States, usually as a result of heart attacks or accidents going to or from the scene of an emergency. Firefighter deaths inside burning buildings are blessedly rare. And those deaths, according to fire safety experts, are often preventable.
“It’s possible to do everything right and end up dead as a firefighter,’’ said Tobia, a battalion chief in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County Fire Department. “But those instances are very few and far between.”
Deputy Chief Finn ordered all firefighters out of the Beacon Street building after it became clear that there was no way to extricate Walsh and Kennedy — who were trapped in the basement — without sacrificing the lives of additional firefighters. A lot of children still have fathers because of that momentous decision. But more must be known about the decisions up and down the chain of command that led Lieutenant Walsh and Firefighter Kennedy into the basement where the fire originated. Were “savable lives’’ clearly at stake that required offensive measures? Was there any opportunity to warn Walsh and Kennedy of deteriorating conditions before they became trapped? Did strategies and tactics take account of the high wind conditions? So many questions remain. And the answer to any one of them could hold the key to preventing future deaths or injuries.
Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald said that a deputy chief who had no role in fighting the Beacon Street blaze will be chosen to lead a board of inquiry into the fire. But it is not at all clear if the department is capable of making a dispassionate assessment of the actions of its own members. The department’s investigation into a 2007 fire in West Roxbury that took the lives of two firefighters fell way short of the mark. It took a subsequent report by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to make clear that the incident management system, tactics, communication system, and equipment were “ineffective” or “inadequate” at the fatal West Roxbury blaze.
The services of these federal investigators are greatly needed again.
More than 10,000 firefighters from across the nation turned out this week for the funerals of Lieutenant Walsh and Firefighter Kennedy. The rites and rituals for the fallen firefighters could be described as majestic. But now must come the search on the fire ground for truth and accountability.Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.