A 28-year-old firefighter who was ejected from a moving fire truck May 2 was the victim of a faulty latch mechanism that could exist in up to 95 percent of the Fire Department’s nearly 200 Seagrave pumpers, the Uniformed Firefighters’ Association charged at a press conference last week.
UFA President Stephen J. Cassidy said the incident, which caused serious head trauma to Firefighter Thomas LaBara, was the subject of an in-depth safety review by FDNY Chief of Safety Allen S. Hay.
But the union was never informed of the report, or its findings, he said.
Susceptible to Pressure
Mr. Cassidy Oct. 10 distributed copies of the internal memo and report sent in June from Chief Hay to First Deputy Fire Commissioner Frank P. Cruthers and Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta.
The investigation concluded that a latch system used by Seagrave sometimes didn’t catch correctly, leading firefighters to believe a door was secure but allowing it to pop open at the slightest pressure.
Chief Hay wrote that “the apparent cause of the crew cab door opening was the door latch mechanism did not properly engage the latch pin.”
In media reports immediately after Mr. Cassidy’s press conference, the FDNY called the accident an “unexpected fluke” and reiterated its stance that firefighters should wear their seatbelts when in moving trucks.
FDNY spokesman Frank X. Gribbon later told The Chief-Leader that Commissioner Scoppetta has asked the First Deputy Commissioner and the Commissioner of Support Services to review the latch mechanisms on the department’s fleet to see if there’s a way to make the locking mechanism foolproof.
Made Change in Design
Mr. Hay in his memo said Seagrave had already tacitly acknowledged the faulty system by changing the latch design for its 2006 line of rigs. Although there had been no prior accidents similar to Mr. LaBara’s that he knew of, Chief Hay nonetheless recommended a simple retro-fit of a metal plate over the internal pins to fix the problem in the FDNY’s older pumpers. But the FDNY has yet to make a single alteration to any of its fire trucks, Mr. Cassidy contended last week.
Scott Mintier, Seagrave’s chief executive officer, didn’t return calls for comment. But in a New York Times article that ran Oct. 12, he denied that his company had needed to fix the door design. He said the door would have stayed shut even if the latch were only partially closed, leading him to believe the cab door was open as the truck exited its quarters.
An FDNY source said it appeared newer models were constructed differently, eliminating the problem.
At his press conference, Mr. Cassidy also released video footage of the accident captured by security cameras on surrounding Federal buildings. It shows the rig making a tight right turn from Duane St. onto Broadway after nightfall. A figure, mostly visible because of the tell-tale strips of reflective material on his pants that indicate FDNY bunker gear, tumbles out of a rear cab door at the peak of the rig’s turn.
Firefighter LaBara fell onto his back, striking his head sharply against the pavement. He jumped up to avoid an oncoming car, but tottered only a few feet before collapsing again. Firefighters were immediately at his side.
Mr. LaBara has been unable to return to work, Mr. Cassidy said. He indicated that an FDNY source, concerned by the lack of departmental action, gave the union the memo.
“If the locking mechanism isn’t working properly, we’re risking the health and safety of New York City firefighters,” the UFA leader insisted.
He said that if the FDNY doesn’t start retro-fitting its fleet of Seagrave pumpers with the corrective item recommended by Chief Hay, he’ll ask the City Council to conduct an oversight hearing.
“It’s a tremendous amount [to fix]. It’ll probably take some period of time, but they have not done anything five months later,” he commented.
Past Source of Conflict
The UFA and the Uniformed Fire Officers’ Association have butted heads with FDNY officials over fire truck safety before. Both unions have testified at City Council hearings that many replacement rigs are too old to be considered safe.
The UFOA has a clause in its contract mandating that front-line trucks be replaced approximately every 10 years, but no cap exists for replacement rigs. They are kept in service as long as FDNY mechanics clear them for use – some for close to 20 years.
Last December a rookie firefighter fell from a rig that was making a sharp left turn on the Upper East Side. It was a 17-year-old tower truck, manufactured in 1988. An initial February memo issued by the FDNY after the incident stated that the firefighter fell from the truck after the cab door opened. The department later recanted and issued a March memo stating simply that the firefighter fell out.
A Matter of Money?
Mr. Cassidy didn’t link that incident to the May 2 accident that injured Firefighter LaBara, pointing out that the trucks were different models. But, he said, the two accidents raised questions about the FDNY’s willingness to spend money to upgrade equipment for firefighter safety.
The UFA leader has also been critical of the FDNY’s decision to deal exclusively with Seagrave instead of getting contracts with various fire truck providers. FDNY officials have acknowledged that the vendor has provided some trucks that didn’t meet minimum standards.
At an April 4 City Council hearing, however, FDNY Chiefs said Seagrave was warned that it needed to improve, and since then has regularly met the agency’s safety and performance standards.
Peter L. Gorman, president of the UFOA, said the union was going to ask its officers to make sure gear was properly donned before anyone boarded a fire truck. Union officials would also remind members of their individual responsibility to wear seatbelts, he said.
Dress on the Way
Firefighters usually throw on their pants and boots and put the rest of their bunker gear on en route to a call, but they can’t buckle their seat belts until fully dressed. It gets them to an emergency a few seconds faster, but leaves them vulnerable to mishaps like the one Mr. LaBara suffered.
In the video footage of his accident, Mr. LaBara – who fell out less than half a block from his Engine 7 firehouse – has only donned bunker pants. Hat, gloves and jacket are not in sight, suggesting he was still getting dressed in the back of the cab when the door opened.
“We’ve enforced other safety regulations and the Commissioner has attacked the UFOA and the UFA leadership for it, and we are troubled by that,” said Mr. Gorman, referring to a broadside of criticism he and Mr. Cassidy received last year from Mr. Scoppetta after the FDNY instituted stricter driving regulations for Chauffeurs.
Response Time Tension
The FDNY stepped up its safe-driving training following an accident that occurred when a firetruck going well above the speed limit went through a red light and smashed into a car with several passengers, killing one of them.
When the unions – especially the UFOA, whose members are held responsible for enforcing FDNY regulations – urged members to slow down and follow not only departmental rules, but also national standards that call for a full stop at intersections, Commissioner Scoppetta accused Mr. Gorman and Mr. Cassidy of trying to drive up fire response times to further their own political agendas.
Mr. Gorman, while indicating that some of the tension caused by those exchanges had slightly lessened with time, said his union would always stress safety and proper procedures.
He added that the UFOA would stand “in lockstep with the FDNY, if [the department] is true to its word about wanting members properly suited up and belted in.”
He also sugg
ested that the FDNY invest in some of the latest seatbelt designs created specifically for firefighters. UFOA Health and Safety Committee member Michael Wilbur, an FDNY Lieutenant, has demonstrated new technologies at Metrotech that allow firefighters to buckle up while wearing gloves and make it easier for them to get seatbelts around bulky gear. Mr. Gorman didn’t comment on the contents of Chief Hay’s report about Firefighter LaBara’s accident, but noted that while “the Commissioner certainly has the authority to dismiss the findings, we would like to know what the vetting process was to [initially] dismiss [Chief Hay’s] recommendation.”
THE CHIEF LEADER
By GINGER ADAMS OTIS