A year and five months after a Wilmington rowhome blaze claimed the lives of three city firefighters, federal officials are still investigating what factors made the Canby Park fire so deadly – and how the city can prevent similar tragedies.
City residents and firefighters hope an upcoming report can help explain why the Sept. 24, 2016, fire resulted in the deaths of Capt. Chris Leach, Lt. Jerry Fickes and Lt. Ardythe Hope.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty as to whether the correct calls were made to enter the house,” said City Councilman Bob Williams, a former volunteer firefighter. “I think it’s important that the truth be told and that the adjustments are made to prevent this from happening in the future.”
The Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program is reviewing Wilmington’s case. It’s an initiative run by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that conducts independent investigations of firefighter line-of-duty deaths.
Wilmington’s report was expected to be completed by late last year, but the timeline has been pushed to May, according to Stephanie Stevens, a NIOSH spokeswoman.
The purpose of the public health program is not to enforce federal job safety and health standards or place blame on fire departments or individual firefighters, Stevens said.
“The NIOSH program is intended to identify factors that contributed to firefighter deaths in an incident, as well as to provide findings and recommendations in public reports to prevent future tragedies,” she said.
Investigations can take many months, and sometimes years, records show. The NIOSH report on a December 2014 fire in Philadelphia that killed 37-year-old firefighter Joyce Craig was not issued until March 2017.
Trauma-related incidents, like the Canby Park fire, typically take more time to complete than medical investigations, such as when a firefighter has a heart attack while on duty, Stevens said.
Williams said the report may review the city’s use of “brownouts,” the controversial practice of placing a fire truck out of service to save on overtime expenses. The engine closest to the Canby Park fire was not operating that night.
Brownouts continue today, and many firefighters believe they are dangerous.
Lawyers for firefighter Brad Speakman, who was badly burned at the Lakeview Road fire, announced Wednesday that they are planning to file a lawsuit alleging understaffing and brownouts led to injuries and fatalities.
No evidence has proven a link between the brownouts and the fatalities, but Williams said the city should cease the practice at least until the NIOSH report comes out.
“We still have firefighters doing the job day in, day out, and if they can glean any information from this report to make themselves safer, that’s the most important thing,” Williams said.
Generally, to start an investigation, NIOSH researchers visit the site to gather information, Stevens said. This may include taking pictures, getting measurements, reviewing documents and conducting voluntary interviews with Fire Department personnel and firefighters who were on the scene at the time of the incident.
Investigators review documents including the department’s standard operating procedures; dispatch records; training records for the fallen firefighters, incident commander, and officers; the firefighter’s medical records; coroner/medical examiner’s reports; death certificates; blueprints of the structure; police reports; photos; and videos, according to Stevens.
Final reports include a description of the event’s circumstances to provide context for NIOSH’s prevention recommendations, Stevens said.
What Wilmington’s report will say is unclear. NIOSH won’t comment on ongoing investigations, Stevens said.
Fire union President Kevin Turner declined an interview request.
“Our membership anxiously awaits the release of the NIOSH Lakeview Road Report, so that we can find closure, as well as being able to discuss the value and importance of having proper fire protection within our community,” he said in an email.
Wilmington Fire Chief Michael Donohue declined to comment on the NIOSH investigation citing the ongoing criminal case of Beatrice Fana-Ruiz. She was charged with setting the fire intentionally. She is scheduled to go to trial in March 2019.
In Philadelphia, NIOSH cited several factors in Craig’s death including the use of old equipment and that adequate resources did not respond in a “timely manner.” A backup ladder took 21 minutes to arrive on the scene, the report said, “primarily because the crew was not familiar with the streets in the area.”