Jeff Gillespie can’t pinpoint exactly when blood stopped flowing to his brain.
The veteran Poudre Fire Authority firefighter doesn’t know exactly how long he stopped breathing, either. It’s impossible to say precisely how long his world went black that November afternoon when he was essentially hanged during a training accident.
Gillespie went to work Nov. 19, 2016, and played the role of a victim for a practice emergency on the outskirts of Fort Collins. Then he became a victim in real life.
In the seven months since that confined space rescue training, investigators have attributed missteps that nearly killed Gillespie to failures of both communication and protocol. Those factors, combined with trainees’ unfamiliarity with a piece of rescue equipment used, prompted PFA officials to issue numerous policy changes meant to keep incidents like the one that injured Gillespie from happening again.
Today, the firefighter whose 27-year career with PFA includes high-profile disaster responses ranging from the 9/11 terror attacks in New York to the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, faces a future full of doctor appointments and uncertainty.
Gillespie can’t sleep through the night. Even with ear plugs and sensory-diminishing glasses, symptoms from vestibular dysfunction keep him from enjoying his daughter’s basketball games. As he put it, there’s a never-ending “traffic jam” in his brain, accompanied by double vision, splitting headaches and insomnia.
At 58 years old, he might never fight another fire. He might not return to duty with PFA.
“My time frame is unknown. That’s pretty frustrating,” Gillespie said earlier this month from the dimly lit kitchen in his Timnath home, his wife by his side. “… I want to go out on my own choice, not the choices other people made.”
Training turns tragic
It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
The day’s training scenarios were briefly announced during the department’s routine conference call. The confined space in this practice event was a 5-foot-wide pipe in the middle of a 22-foot wide, 40-foot deep pit — groundwater two stories deep surrounded the tube at the pipeline project on Overland Trail, near the Poudre River.
Training is part of the normal routine for local firefighters, with PFA personnel logging a combined 51,700 training hours last year alone. But this day’s scenario would be anything but typical.
Eleven firefighters from a tower, ladder and engine joined, and Gillespie was assigned the role of the victim, a man who had suffered a leg injury when he fell from a ladder. Role-playing in scenarios is routine for first responders, though there are supposed to be systems in place to both ensure safety and to measure successes.
Nobody in the earlier conference call discussed the possibility of placing Gillespie or another firefighter in an actual confined space — a move that should have triggered additional safety precautions. Neither air monitoring nor permits were mentioned.
Conversations about the seemingly routine exercise did not raise enough flags for the safety officer or battalion chief to attend the drill, according to an incident report released late last month.
After donning bunker pants and a sweatshirt, Gillespie settled into a series of harnesses — he was already having difficulty breathing as he was lifted into place.
As he was being raised, the ill-fitting body harness shifted upward, causing Gillespie’s head to move down and forward, placing his throat against two chest straps. That created a “choke point,” slowed his breathing and “depressed” blood flow through his carotid artery — the major vessel that supplies blood to the brain.
He stopped responding to the commands of his colleagues.
“Since (he) did not respond physically or verbally, the rescuers called for a ‘stop,’ and hauling efforts were immediately ceased,” investigators wrote. Crews lowered Gillespie and removed him from the harness before getting him medical treatment and transporting him to an ambulance.
Best guesses estimate he had been unresponsive for “approximately one minute.”
It might have been longer.
Gillespie can’t remember.
After a trip to the hospital, Gillespie called his wife, Janice, to tell her he’d been injured.
She answered when she was in the grocery store check-out line, kids at her side.
“My heart just sank,” she said.
An agency-altering response
Deemed a “high-risk, low-frequency” event, confined space rescues are highly technical emergencies firefighters prepare for, but seldom need to act on.
Responding to incidents like a utility worker who becomes trapped in an underground space is among the “other duties as assigned” portion of a firefighter’s job description.
Reports released last month, along with multiple PFA emails obtained through a public records request by the Coloradoan, highlight potentially dangerous shortcomings within PFA policy the led to the events that injured Gillespie.
“It’s very unfortunate, and our thoughts and prayers are still with the injured firefighter everyday,” Chief Tom DeMint said in an interview. “These are the things that fire chiefs lose sleep over, someone getting hurt or potentially worse. That part’s hard. That part’s really hard.”
DeMint called for a detailed internal investigation to figure out “what processes, equipment or other factors led to Jeff’s injuries.” From the outset, DeMint said his intent was to make the investigation a “fact-finding mission, not a fault-finding mission.”
DeMint on Feb. 15 — 88 days after Gillespie was injured — issued a confined space rescue and high-angle rope rescue safety stand-down order that barred firefighters from using live simulated victims, according to emails obtained by the Coloradoan.
The device that contributed to Gillespie’s injuries was removed from operation immediately after the incident, pending the outcome of the investigation, DeMint said.
Internal investigations into the Nov. 19 incident were followed by an outside inquiry, headed by an expert on confined space rescues who was hired March 6.
That investigator, Michael R. Roop, spoke to 16 PFA personnel who either participated in the drill or knew about what happened. Investigators also re-created the exercise, and studied the piece of equipment known as a Yates Spec Pak — a specialized harness for which training videos and explanations are available online.
“Unfortunately, this injury incident occurred because the PFA didn’t know what it didn’t know about the Spec Pak device because the manufacturer did not properly prepare them,” Roop wrote, summarizing the report.
A week after the Coloradoan filed a records request seeking reports and emails about the incident, DeMint sent the report and a 14-point list of changes, many to be made effective immediately, to the entire agency. The timing was coincidental, he said.
Among the mandated changes: develop a policy for training action plans that keep better tabs on high-risk training; require confined space training exercises to have permits that serve as another safety checklist; and ensure air monitoring systems are in place in dangerous situations.
Additionally, mannequins will be used as the victim when firefighters train in uncontrolled environments, such as the one Nov. 19.
“It is important that we learn from what our internal investigators and Mr. Roop discovered in their investigations of this incident,” DeMint wrote. “We will focus on these changes and others to make our training and response exercise more effective and safe.
“It is incumbent upon us, the leaders in safety for the community, to maintain a culture of safety.”
Still, DeMint said in an interview, “accidents like this can happen.”
PFA crews have participated in additional high-angle rope rescue training sessions this year, but have not used people as simulated victims. No confined space training has occurred since the incident, and PFA “hasn’t begun to consider legal action” against the harness company.
At the moment, lawsuits aren’t in the picture for Gillespie, either. He just wants to focus on recovering and returning to work.
While the external investigation pointed blame toward the equipment manufacturer, some in the agency still feel guilt.
In charge of buying and maintaining rope rescue equipment, PFA Capt. Bob Root told his colleagues in an email that he took responsibility for shortfalls in training with the devices.
He said he thinks about the Nov. 19 incident daily.
“Although I was not there during the incident, I believe we all have some culpability when one of our own is injured,” Root said in an email to the Coloradoan. “As for me, I am focusing my efforts on supporting a truly great firefighter, Jeff Gillespie.”
An unclear path forward
In a dark room the size of a large closet, Gillespie plays what can only be described as an agonizing video game guaranteed to leave him frustrated and with a splitting headache.
His mission during this session at Fort Collins Family Eye Care is to use a controller to merge two projected photos of dinosaurs into one, even as green and blue lines — intentional distractions — dance on the walls around him. The exercise, part of his twice-a-week vision therapy regimen, is intended to retrain his brain to process visual information.
Dr. Jaclyn A. Munson likened the brain to the city of Denver.
When nerves are functioning properly, information flows unencumbered up and down Interstate 25. A crash can tie up one lane of traffic, and multiple wrecks can wreak havoc on vehicles — information — arriving in the brain. That’s exacerbated when different highways — nerves — are factored in, resulting in a perpetual “traffic jam” of information.
Gillespie’s injuries represent one of the more “extreme diagnoses” Munson has encountered. She’s hopeful doctors can ease his constant traffic jam.
“We can retrain the eyes and brain to work better together,” she said.
At the end of the dinosaur-focus exercise, Gillespie leans forward in a chair like a diligent student. Brooke Campbell, a vision therapist, reviews the week’s take-home exercises — one requires following the movement of a ball without turning his head, while another forces him to turn two pictures into three, testing his ability to focus.
He will have to do multiple sessions at home, the latest on top of the more than 100 doctor appointments Gillespie has gone to in the roughly 200 days since the incident that upended his world.
The headaches, neck pain and double-vision linger. It’s not uncommon for him to wake at 2 a.m., left to pace the living room or work on his vision assignments.
“I’ll hate ’em,” he tells Campbell as the session ends.
Though cautiously optimistic about the path forward, there remains a giant question mark on Gillespie’s future.
He wants to be a dad to his two young children, ages 7 and 10.
He desperately needs a good night’s sleep.
Gillespie’s injury represents what might be considered a “near miss” in the world of workplace hazards. But given his uncertain prognosis and recurring, debilitating pain, he said he considers it more of a “direct hit.”
“I wish people could get in my brain and feel and see what I see. And feel how not good I feel,” he said. “I feel terrible. A lot.”
Gillespie is still employed at PFA, though he’s on injury leave until at least November.
His wife has returned to full-time work at a medical office to help cover the couple’s expenses and plan for a potentially rocky fiscal future. They wonder about his healing, his long-term health, and whether the steps outlined by PFA officials go far enough to ensure an incident like this never happens again.
And sometimes Gillespie walks into a room near the front entrance of his family’s home.
Framed editions of the Coloradoan line the walls, each telling tales of a more able-bodied Jeff Gillespie.
One shows Gillespie among his firefighter partners working to quell the 2011 Penny Flats fire that destroyed an under-construction Old Town Fort Collins apartment complex.
One shows Gillespie in a yellow shirt watching as the High Park Fire tears through the Larimer County backcountry five years ago.
Another shows Gillespie among seven PFA firefighters sent to help recover remains and move debris from Ground Zero in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Rescues like that are why Gillespie is hopeful he’ll return to work.
They’re why he became a rescuer in the first place.
“You go to a person’s worst day and try to make sense out of chaos, give them help,” Gillespie said. “It’s like a fire. The window’s closing, you only have a little time before you can make a difference.”
Reporter Jason Pohl covers public safety for the Coloradoan. Follow him on Twitter: @pohl_jason.
Injury spurs changes at PFA
Among the mandated changes outlined in an order from Chief Tom DeMint following an investigation of the training exercise during which firefighter Jeff Gillespie was injured:
- Prohibit bunker gear and other thermal protection in confined space rescues or training exercises that require harnesses, “unless impractical.”
- Use rescue mannequins as the mock victim when training exercises are not in controlled environments.
- Develop a policy by the end of 2017 for training action plans that keep better tabs on high-risk training and ensure adequate permitting and planning.
- Mandate air monitoring prior to entry for personnel entering a potential “dangerous to life and health” environment.
Jeff Gillespie’s symptoms
- Continuous headaches
- Double or blurry vision
- “Poker-like pain” in both eyes
- Sensitivity to light
- Hearing loss