The 1997 fire at the Delaware Trust building was a wake-up call.
Firefighters were confused about who was in charge and struggled to coordinate during the high-rise blaze that injured 15 of them at what is now the Residences at Rodney Square, federal investigators said in a report two years later.
The feds recommended additional training. They said Wilmington should utilize nearby training facilities, conduct exercises with county companies and “evaluate their in-service training program to ensure that it is adequately preparing fire fighters to respond to various incidents,” the report said.
“There were people going every which way,” then-fire union president Mike McNulty told The News Journal in 1999. “We were lucky we didn’t lose anyone.”
Nearly two decades later, the department wasn’t so lucky. A blaze on Sept. 24, 2016, in Canby Park took the lives of three Wilmington firefighters: Christopher Leach, Jerry Fickes and Ardythe Hope.
A lack of training for firefighters and officers was cited among the factors that turned the fire fatal, federal investigators said in a November report.
The Wilmington Fire Department increased the quality and frequency of training after the Canby Park fire, firefighters said. But the two federal reports raise questions about why the changes didn’t happen sooner.
Even after a near catastrophe in 1997 and federal recommendations in 1999, the Wilmington Fire Department did not embark on a consistent effort to properly train its personnel until three firefighters died.
“It infuriates me”: Retired Wilmington firefighter speaks out against training and safety Jerry Habraken, The News Journal
“How do you defend that?” asked Bill Kirlin Jr., a retired Wilmington firefighter who was among the first responders at the Delaware Trust Building.
“Here we are with a paid, professional fire department with a 19-year spread from two different kinds of fires — but two major fires — and all the same issues are still present with the two fires. It’s negligence. There’s no way around it.”
Most of Wilmington Fire Department’s training before and after the Delaware Trust fire was “company level” training, in which firefighters learn from their officers, Kirlin said.
The officers may or may not have nationally certified credentials because outside continuing education is not required.
The most recent federal report states that “instructor” and “officer” classes should be offered “on a rotating basis” but Wilmington has offered them rarely, if ever, said Joe Leonetti, the fire union president.
Live burn training is supposed to occur at least once a year, according to the federal report on the 2016 fire, but Leonetti estimated Wilmington has done them only three times in five or six years.
There’s a significant difference between learning from an uncertified company officer and one certified by the Pro Board, the professional organization that trains instructors in national standards, according to Kirlin.
“It would be like a Cadillac compared to a Chevy,” he said.
Firefighters must pass a written exam and physical agility test to graduate from the academy. One year later, Leonetti said they have to pass the physical test again. After that, Leonetti said training has been informal and/or optional.
“Once you get your Firefighter II certification, you have it,” Leonetti said. “So we have guys with 35 years who got Firefighter II 35 years ago, and that’s the last thing they did.”
For firefighters who want to further their education beyond what the city offers, Leonetti said employees often have to go on their own time with their own money.
“It’s tough seeing other departments really proactive with their training,” he said. “We need to get better at it. I just want my people to be able to go home at the end of the day.”
Wilmington officials declined to be interviewed, citing a pending lawsuit involving the Canby Park fire. John Rago, Mayor Mike Purzycki’s spokesman, said in a statement that the fire department pays for training that is “required” or “approved” by the department.
“If a firefighter requests training that is not required by the Department, and the Department approves the request, the Department will pay for the course but the firefighter must attend on his/her own time,” Rago said.
Rago provided a list of training Wilmington firefighters do, including structural live burns, mayday training and how to fight below-grade fires such as basement fires.
Since Fire Chief Michael Donohue took the helm months after the Canby Park fire, firefighters said there are more quality training opportunities.
The fire department said firefighters interested in receiving Pro Board training and certification were given the opportunity this past year. Fifty-five were certified in 2018 in the areas of rope rescue, confined space rescue and vehicle and advanced vehicle rescue.
Why didn’t Wilmington invest in more training?
The 1999 report should have dictated “major changes” within the fire department, but it did not, Kirlin said.
“Structure fire-wise, it was all company driven,” Kirlin said. “There was not a lot of Pro Board certified instruction given.”
The main reason for that is money, according to Al Huelsenbeck, a former deputy chief who retired in 2013.
“We were trying to keep our head above water,” said Huelsenbeck, who starting working for the Wilmington Fire Department in 1972. “The fire department costs money, and at that time in that administration, there wasn’t a lot.”
Huelsenbeck said that national training sessions aren’t a silver bullet. National training materials tend to be written for larger departments with optimal resources, he said.
There is no standard firefighting training policy in Delaware, according to the state’s Volunteer Firefighters Association.
Warren Jones, executive manager of the volunteer association, said most, if not all, volunteer companies send their people to the Delaware Fire School, where they are trained in various forms of firefighting.
All require the basic class, like structural fire fighting and vehicle rescue, Jones said. After they complete those classes, they do periodic training in the individual fire companies.
“That is based on their own criteria and own issues at the time,” he said. “But they are always reviewing standard operating procedures and standard training procedure.”
Greenville, South Carolina Fire Chief Stephen Kovalcik, who leads a department in a city with 3,000 fewer residents than Wilmington, said it’s essential that firefighters stay sharp. His firefighters get annual refresher training.
“In the sports world, you play as you practice,” he said. “If you don’t practice, and it’s time for the game, how do you expect to maintain your skill set?”
Continuing education is especially important because firefighting evolves as building materials change and fires burn faster, Kovalcik said. But firefighting as a profession can be slow to adapt.
“There is a saying in the fire service. It’s 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress,” he said.
Even in departments that have strong training programs and protocols, tragedies can happen, Kovalcik said. There is no such thing as a perfect fire response.
“It doesn’t happen,” he said. “It’s dang near impossible.”
How is fire training improving now?
Since Chief Michael Donohue took over in January 2017, Leonetti said the department holds mandatory training sessions on a new topic every month. The department under Donohue is also offering opportunities for members to obtain national certifications which were not offered previously and is planning to offer training for officers.
Leonetti believes those changes are a direct reaction to the Canby Park tragedy.
“We’re getting more training now than we ever got,” Leonetti said, but added more needs to be done.
Leonetti said the union is working with the city to establish physical standards for firefighters. Currently, annual medical exams, which include a cardiac stress test, are optional. He said all firefighters aren’t necessarily in great shape.
“We had a guy that would come in, get on the treadmill and as soon as they went to kick it up, he’d be like, ‘No, this ride’s over,’” Leonetti said. “He died of a heart attack.”
Purzycki recently secured funding for exercise equipment for the fire department, Leonetti said. If the physicals become required, the union doesn’t want the system to be punitive.
“I don’t want to see anyone get in trouble because they got out of shape,” he said. “We could make it something for new guys that you have to keep up with this. But the guys that have 30 years aren’t going to be on board if you get in trouble.”
Longtime City Councilwoman Loretta Walsh, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee, declined to comment for this story.
The city declined to make Donohue available for an interview citing pending litigation, but a statement was issued on his behalf:
“The Wilmington Fire Department has continued to evolve its training protocols in order to ensure that all WFD firefighters are responsibly trained on an annual basis. Throughout the year, the WFD offers multiple training events for its firefighters at the company and platoon levels, as well as department wide.
“In addition to annual mandatory training for all WFD firefighters in areas such as fire ground operations and fire behavior, the WFD also regularly offers company level training and officer level training in a wide variety of areas and disciplines.”
The pending litigation is a lawsuit filed by attorneys representing the estates of Leach, Fickes, Hope and three firefighters injured in the Canby Park fire.
Filed in August, the suit argues that a Wilmington cost-saving policy led to conditions that resulted in the deadly blaze.
The policy, which places a fire truck out of service to save on overtime expenses, was in place the morning of the Canby Park fire, which prevented more than 1,700 gallons of water from being doused on the house before the first floor collapsed, trapping firefighters, according to the lawsuit.
The rolling bypasses practice started under former Wilmington Mayor James Baker and was continued by his successor, former Mayor Dennis P. Williams.
It is still in use today.
Thomas S. Neuberger, whose law firm and that of Jacobs & Crumpler represent the firefighters, said the federal report has shown the Wilmington Fire Department did not have a standard operating procedure when it came to attacking fires in basements, which are common in many city homes.
“The city has failed to keep its firefighting skills up to date and this has cost it the lives of firefighters and others,” Neuberger said.
Many Wilmington firefighters remain angry that Purzycki cut 16 firefighting positions from his budget during his first year in office. Besides concerns about slower response times and reduced manpower, Huelsenbeck said the loss of the positions makes it harder to train the people remaining.
“Having the luxury of being able to put companies out of service to have viable training, that’s a big issue throughout the fire service,” he said.
“Do I wish that I had better training? Yeah, I do. Do I wish my guys could’ve had better training? Sure. Was it always a reality or possibility? No. In my 40 years there, that fire department was cut by one third. The night I started there were 58 people on duty. Tonight, there are 34.”
Sometimes it’s as low as 30, according to Leonetti.
Kirlin said the department should continue to bolster training for all personnel despite the cost.
“You could say it’s going to cost three times the amount of money, but most firefighters are going to tell you we’re probably better off doing that,” he said. “The firefighters are going to be safer. The citizens are going to be safer.”
Contact Christina Jedra at [email protected], (302) 324-2837 or on Twitter @ChristinaJedra.
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