Toledo fire union officials and top department administrators are at odds about whether a change in policy made firefighters more — or less — safe in their jobs and ultimately contributed to the deaths of two privates fighting an arson fire in North Toledo last year.
In stark comments Wednesday, the head of the city’s firefighter union blamed Toledo’s fire chief, Luis Santiago, for contributing to the deaths of two firefighters last year.
“The leader of this department, Chief Santiago, for two years, had a flawed system,” Local 92 President Jeff Romstadt told The Blade. “We brought it to his attention. … He needs to be held accountable for the decisions he made that are contributing factors in two firefighters’ deaths.”
Speaking in reference to a federal report issued on Wednesday — compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which outlines the deaths of Pvts. Stephen Machcinski and James “Jamie” Dickman — Mr. Romstadt said the elimination of a full-time safety officer in 2012 made working conditions for Toledo firefighters unsafe.
Toledo fire Lt. Matthew Hertzfeld, a department spokesman, said the safety officer position was not eliminated, but changed and “enhanced.”
Before 2012, as implemented by former fire Chief Mike Bell in the 1990s, the fire department had three full-time safety officers, one per shift, and a fourth safety officer filled in as needed. The safety officer was based out of Station 9, on South Avenue, because of its central location and proximity to the Anthony Wayne Trail and I-75.
In 2012, fire Chief Santiago changed the full-time nature of the position and all officers — lieutenants and captains — received in-house safety-officer training, Lieutenant Hertzfeld said.
The thought behind the change was that there would be more safety officers in the city at any given time, the lieutenant said.
“Firefighting is inherently dangerous and it’s a type of profession where as many eyes as you can have on a scene, the better off everyone on scene is going to be,” Lieutenant Hertzfeld said. “ … Under the old system, with just one safety officer, it was possible and did happen where you’d have incidents overlap each other where you wouldn’t have a safety officer available.”
Mr. Romstadt contends that the officers who received the safety-officer training were still not prepared to handle the full responsibilities. Those officers received training of 2½ to 3 hours; safety-officer certification training is 16 hours.
“Under the Bell administration, Chief Bell was ahead of the curve when he instituted the safety officer,” Mr. Romstadt said. “ … Their job was the safety of the membership of this department. They took a lot of pride in that. Chief Santiago said it was inefficient and unilaterally gutted it.”
On Jan. 26, 2014, when 528 Magnolia St., a two-story apartment building in North Toledo, burned, an officer on Engine 19 had the role of safety officer when it arrived on scene. The assignment came at 2:59 p.m., 12 minutes after the fire was dispatched. At 3:03 p.m., the first mayday call was broadcast, according to the NIOSH report.
Mr. Romstadt said that had the safety-officer policy not been changed, the officer would have likely been on scene sooner — Station 9 is 3½ miles from the location of the Magnolia Street fire. Safety officers’ responsibilities are, generally, to conduct a perimeter check of a burning building, to monitor changes in the conditions of the fire, and to be responsible for the overall safety of firefighters.
The NIOSH report makes 11 recommendations that the department should implement, one being the reinstatement of a full-time safety officer.
Both Mr. Romstadt and Lieutenant Hertzfeld said that, in June, 2014, the position was again made full-time and is based out of Station 9. Now, however, in conjunction with the full-time safety officers, the line officers still have the abbreviated training to act in the safety officer capacity.
Lieutenant Hertzfeld said the change to the current policy was brought about by the relative youth of department firefighters who were hired in the past few years and a loss of experienced firefighters because of retirements.
The department’s youth was also a point of contention for the union. A breakdown of on-scene firefighters from Jan. 26, 2014, as shown in the report, indicates there were 10 probationary firefighters and only six officers, although one was reassigned as the safety officer.
Typically, there is a one-to-one probationary firefighter to officer ratio for personal oversight, Mr. Romstadt said. One of the officers was a firefighter with four years experience working in an “acting officer” capacity, the report states.
Another recommendation of the report states that the department should ensure there is an officer staffing each on-scene company.
Officials from NIOSH listed eight factors as contributing to the deaths of Mr. Machcinski and Mr. Dickman: arson, risk assessment and scene size-up, resource deployment, fireground tactics, inadequate water supply, crew staffing, lack of a full-time safety officer, and no sprinkler system in the building.
Ray Abou-Arab, 62, of Oregon, who owned the building, is accused of setting the fatal fire. He is charged with two counts of aggravated murder, each with death penalty specifications; two counts of murder; eight counts of aggravated arson; and one count of tampering with evidence.
Officials allege that Mr. Abou-Arab started the fire in the garage of the apartment building. A June 29 hearing is set for Mr. Abou-Arab’s attorneys, Pete Rost and Sam Kaplan, to argue that the fire department investigators may have destroyed preliminary fire reports that suggested the blaze started in a kitchen inside the Magnolia Street apartment building rather than in the garage.
Frederick McDonald, a now-retired Lucas County Common Pleas Court judge, issued a gag order in Mr. Abou-Arab’s case after he was indicted on the capital murder charges last year. The gag order bars counsel from making public statements regarding the case with the exception of statements they make in open court.
The order further states that “counsel or anyone acting on their behalf not provide any statements or information to any source which may in any way create or influence any pretrial publicity in this case.”
Judge Stacy Cook, who is presiding over the case, could not be reached on Wednesday for further explanation of who the gag order covers — if, for instance, city officials are prohibited from speaking about the case.
Jeff Lingo, chief of the criminal division for the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office, cited the gag order in declining to comment on how the NIOSH report might impact the criminal case against Mr. Abou-Arab.
Mr. Rost and Mr. Kaplan also declined to comment. Chief Santiago, on Tuesday, declined to comment also citing the gag order.
Lieutenant Hertzfeld said that, before the release of the federal report, both the Dickman and Machcinski families were briefed on the contents of the report by department administrators. A representative of the Dickman family declined to comment.
Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson said Wednesday she had not yet read the entire report. When asked if she had confidence in Chief Santiago she said, “I can’t answer that until I have more discussion. I think so, but I want to have further discussion and further explanation.”
The mayor also declined to comment on the report’s findings regarding the safety officer position, saying she needed more information.
Read more at http://www.toledoblade.com/Police-Fire/2015/04/30/Union-blames-policy-switch-for-2-deaths.html#31iIiGjSghmuDiqi.99