More than three years after Firefighter Patrick Wolterman died while battling an arson fire, the Hamilton (Ohio near Cincinnati) Fire Department released a report detailing what went wrong.
In an exclusive interview, the head of the Hamilton Firefighter’s Union says the report leaves out key details that could help prevent future fatalities. Local 12 Investigates has uncovered internal departmental emails accusing the Hamilton fire chief of omitting facts to save face. The union president says the department needs to own what was removed from the report.
Tony Harris was there that December night in 2015 when Wolterman died. “My role that night was driving Engine 24,” Harris said. Harris, president of Hamilton Professional Firefighters Union Local 20, also delivered the news to Wolterman’s widow.
“We don’t get to hide from the truth and the facts,” Harris said. “We have to face things head on so that it doesn’t happen again.” Harris says the 63-page report omits some of the details. Emails obtained by Local 12 Investigates show a deputy fire chief agrees. Released in March, the report attributes Wolterman’s December 2015 death on five contributing factors, including communication and mistakes made in the field.
While staffing and response times were included in the additional findings portion of the report, Harris says the report doesn’t own those issues. “The staffing number that we had that night is the staffing number that we have today, right now: 22 members on shift,” Harris said. “Before the closure in 2013, we had 28 members working every day, so that was two more fire engines.”
We asked Hamilton Fire Chief Mark Mercer for an on-camera interview. He said he would be happy to provide written replies to our written questions rather than sit down for an interview.
When asked why personnel reductions were eliminated from the report, Mercer said in his written responses: “The purpose of the report was to identify the factors that contributed to the fireground fatality, not an overall evaluation of fire department functions nor staffing.”
After the city shuttered a fire station in 2013 and reduced staff by six firefighters, Harris said response time doubled. “It went from two minutes and 59 seconds to six minutes and 23 seconds,” Harris said. “Those are the things that was one of the major things that was omitted from that.”
Those exact response times are listed right here in the draft report, backed by a study that tested the response time to Pater Avenue 10 times prior to the closing of the fire station and nine times after the station’s closure. In his written response, Mercer said, “During the review of the draft report, the discussion of response times could not be supported nor recreated. I don’t doubt the effort that was put into it, however I could not support the statements.”
Harris also takes issue with the final report listing response by mileage. He says the national standard is to list response by time. “We don’t say, ‘There’s a firehouse within 1.2 miles of your house.’ We say, ‘A firetruck can be at your door in three to four minutes,’” Harris said. The National Fire Prevention Association’s Standard 1710 measures all response objectives by time and not mileage. It was created in 2001, 12 years before Wolterman’s death.
Mercer said that the “response time is one measure” and cited the Insurance Services Office, which uses travel distance for measure. Harris says staffing was also an issue. Internal emails obtained by Local 12 Investigates show Harris is not the only person who expressed concerns about staffing issues.
This email from Deputy Chief Thomas Eickelberger to Mercer in February 2018 says: “I feel very strongly about including the details involving staffing level reductions that the department sustained during the city’s budget reduction and how that may have had an impact that night.” While the final report mentions staffing, it does not highlight how staffing levels affected response that night.
The draft report, which we obtained through an open records request, included two pages of findings on staff level reductions. “Staffing and response times and things like that, there’s a direct correlation,” Harris said. “Those are the changes that would cost the city more money.”
Mercer said in his written response, “So what if Engine 27 were staffed with three firefighters and had been dispatched to that fire and had arrived two minutes earlier? Would that response time have made a difference in the incident? The answer is ‘absolutely not.’” “Again, we made the easy things that didn’t cost the city as much money,” Harris said. “And we didn’t want to own the other issues that we have that we continue to have.”
Internal email shows Deputy Chief Eickelberger was also not satisfied with the final report. On Sept. 11, 2018, Eickelberger emailed fire administration, saying, “If we are not going to address the issues resulting from station/truck closures, personnel reduction, and the resulting RAT response from (Engine) 21 on the far west side, I cannot willingly place my name on the amended report. I feel as though we are intentionally omitting important information, only to save face.”
Mercer responded to Eickelberger’s email by saying, “We are not intentionally omitting any information to save face. I am actually a bit offended that you say that in that way.”
The report committee consisted of a five-member team that did not respond to the Pater Avenue fire. While they signed the draft report, their names were removed from the final published report.
When we asked Mercer why those names were removed, he wrote, “Several members chose to remove themselves from the committee and to stop participating. Each had the opportunity to continue to participate and to sign the report. Their names were not removed; the choice was that of the members.”
“The public absolutely should be aware of this,” Harris said of the report. “I know that city leadership and city council and people like that are aware of it also, but they have failed to face it head on and that was our hope from this report.”
Local 12 Investigates requested an interview with Eickelberger regarding his concerns and the emails obtained. Mercer told Local 12, “he would be the sole spokesperson fulfilling the role of providing comment on this issue from the department.”
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