Some say yes as the city trails only New York in deaths since 2000
By BILL MURPHY
Houston Chronicle Feb 27, 2005
IN THE LINE OF DUTY
The Houston Chronicle analyzed the Web sites of the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation to calculate the number of firefighters who died fighting fires in major cities since 1995. Among the findings:
Houston: Since 2000, the Houston Fire Department has recorded the second-most deaths among the nation’s 25 biggest cities, with five. It has had six deaths since 1995 if the 1996 death of Ruben Lopez, Houston Volunteer Fire Department district chief, at a fire supervised by HPD is counted.
New York City: Even when the 343 New York City firefighters killed Sept. 11, 2001, are not considered, the world’s biggest fire department has lost the most firefighters since 2000, 9. It also has had the most firefighters killed since 1995, 21.
Philadelphia: Has lost 8 firefighters in fires since 1995, but only three since 2000.
Chicago: Has lost five firefighters since 1995.
Seattle: Has lost four firefighters since 1995, all in the same 1995 incident.
Losing one: Seven other cities, including Phoenix, San Francisco, San Diego and Detroit.
Losing none: Nine cities, including Los Angeles, Jacksonville, Denver, Nashville, Austin and San Jose, Calif.
Firefighters came to Houston by the thousands last week to honor Capt. Grady Burke, killed Feb. 19 when a ceiling collapsed on him in a burning abandoned house.
It was the fifth major funeral for the Houston Fire Department in the past five years. Among the nation’s 25 largest cities, only New York exceeds Houston in the number of firefighters killed while battling fires since 2000.
The five deaths locally in four incidents could be a statistical anomaly, a run of bad luck.
But since Burke’s funeral, the talk at some stations has been about whether some of the deaths might have been avoided if the department had more training for firefighters on when to enter a structure or retreat from a fire.
“The discussion all over the city is: Why five of them in five years?” said an HFD captain who asked not to be identified because he fears the department would punish him. “What we discussed was that except for the Jay Janhke fire (in a Houston high-rise) … these firefighters at these other ones maybe should not have been inside these structures.”
Such concerns echo the issues raised in a pair of reports on one or more of the fatal Houston fires. The reports one internal and one conducted by a federal review team received little publicity when they came out but resonate now with their concern about training and the use of the latest technology.
An HFD report concluded, among other things, that two firefighters’ deaths at an empty McDonald’s restaurant in 2000 and Jahnke’s death at the Four-Leaf Towers high-rise in 2001 might have been prevented if thermal imaging cameras, which enable firefighters to spot fire behind walls and ceilings, had been used.
“Is it a run of bad luck? I can tell you I don’t know,” HFD Chief Phil Boriskie said Friday. “Man, losing one firefighter hurts. Two or three is unacceptable. Now, we are at five in five years I don’t know the words for this.
“We will analyze what has occurred. We will be proactive with recommendations. Any active changes will be meticulous and calculated and geared toward the safety of my firefighters and the citizens of Houston.”
Nationally, on average, 100 to 110 firefighters are killed on duty each year, said Rich Braddee, a manager at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, an arm of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department that investigates all U.S. firefighter fatalities. But most of those deaths occur at the station, in traffic accidents and in other non-fire situations.
Only about 30 percent of firefighters who die on duty are killed in fires, said Gary Tokle, an assistant vice president of the National Fire Protection Association.
Braddee, who is taking part in NIOSH’s investigation of Kevin Kulow’s death at the empty El Festival nightclub 10 months ago, said the five HFD deaths in five years ”might be a little on the high side for the size of the department.”
Lack of information deadly
The first of the recent fire deaths occurred in the early hours of Feb. 14, 2000. Firefighters Lewis Evans Mayo III, 44, and Kimberly Ann Smith, 30, died inside a McDonald’s in the 12600 block of Bissonnet.
The fire was reported about 4:30 a.m., when the restaurant was closed and no one was inside. The first crews to arrive believed they had nothing more than a grease fire confronting them, concluded a NIOSH report on the fire.
The first crew went in and mounted ”a fast attack,” a NIOSH report on the fire says. But it didn’t coordinate with another crew that had a thermal imaging camera. The first crew didn’t learn what the camera was indicating about the fire’s source and size, said a veteran HFD fire official who also asked not to be identified because he fears that department officials will punish him for criticizing the department.
Thermal imaging cameras, which cost $5,000 to $6,000 apiece, are about the size and shape of a hand-held home video camera. They detect infrared heat and display on small monitors images of heat from people and fire burning inside walls.
The first crew didn’t realize that a big fire was burning above the ceiling. Minutes after firefighters entered, an air conditioner atop the roof crashed through, crushing Mayo. Smith didn’t make it out after she was trapped in wires and other items that fell from roof and ceiling areas.
The NIOSH report confirms that a second crew had a thermal imaging camera at the fire but may not have learned anything from it about the nature of the fire until after the roof collapsed.
NIOSH issued a report on the fire in 2001 and recommended how other departments could avoid a tragedy similar to the one at McDonald’s. Among the recommendations: Consider using a thermal imaging camera before entering a burning building. It also said a crew’s commander should be required to weigh risk versus gain in fighting a fire from the inside.
The veteran HFD official said the two deaths likely would have been avoided if those on the fast attack had used a thermal imaging device.
“If they had brought it in,” he said, “they would have seen the fire raging above their heads.”
Confusion at scene
After the McDonald’s fire, HFD bought 46 thermal imagers and put them on ladder trucks, says an HFD report on the Oct. 13, 2001, fire at the Four-Leaf Towers high-rise at 5100 San Felipe.
Raul Reyes, an HFD regional ambulance supervisor and former assistant chief, said last year that it became standard procedure to enter a fire with a thermal imaging camera whenever one was available.
But a firefighter forgot to bring a thermal imaging camera to the fifth floor of Four-Leaf Towers, where the fire was raging inside an apartment, and another was sent to retrieve it, say NIOSH and HFD reports.
The firefighter who retrieved the imager was not wearing an air pack and breathing device and passed it to another to take to the fifth floor, but it never made its way to Capt. Jay Jahnke and other firefighters who entered the burning apartment, the reports say.
Jahnke, 40, and others tried to rescue a resident trapped in a bedroom area, but intense fire, heat and smoke drove them back. Jahnke died in the hall outside the apartment after he became confused on the location of the staircase exit, a state fire marshal’s report says. The resident was later found dead in the apartment.
“It is highly unlikely that firefighters would have had trouble locating an exit or locating a downed firefighter if all crews were equipped with imagers,” the HFD report on the fire said. “This is the second firefighter incide
nt in two years in which an imager may have saved the lives of department firefighters.”
The veteran HFD official said better training, especially of captains and district chiefs, might have made a difference in the deaths at McDonald’s and Four-Leaf Towers.
In its report on the Four-Leaf fire, NIOSH said, “The potential of a thermal imaging camera to improve firefighting and rescue operations will not be fully realized without commensurate training and procedures.”
Reyes said all firefighters, including captains and district chiefs, receive additional training at fire stations. He also said lack of academy training had nothing to do with the deaths of Mayo, Smith, Jahnke and Kulow.
Boriskie said only ladder trucks carry thermal imaging cameras. But HFD has obtained a grant that will allow the department to obtain 90 cameras, and one will be put on every fire engine, possibly by the end of the year, he said.
Kulow, 32, died last April 4 in an arson fire at El Festival Ballroom in 7600 block of Kempwood.
James Alonso Guevara, 20, is accused of orchestrating the arson in an effort to kill his estranged wife, who he thought was inside the club, authorities said. Three others, suspected of helping carry out the plot, were charged with murder. The first of the suspects is scheduled to go on trial in May.
About 30 gallons of gasoline were spread around El Festival, and some of the fuel did not ignite until after firefighters entered, said Assistant Chief Hector Trevino.
Kulow was six months out of the fire academy and was still considered a probationary firefighter.
Neither NIOSH, the state fire marshal’s office nor the HFD has issued reports on the El Festival fire.
In the days after the fire, Mike Herman, a former HFD chief’s aide, raised the issue of whether HFD deaths since 2000 might have been prevented if crews were trained to be less aggressive in mounting interior attacks at certain kinds of fires.
When the Houston Chronicle reported his view, firefighters responded with a barrage of intense, often personal criticism. The union pressured the state fire marshal into removing Herman from a task force investigating Kulow’s death.
The HFD captain as well as the veteran HFD official said institutional reports on the fire need to address the issue of whether the crew should have entered El Festival.
The fire happened about 6 a.m., when people normally would not be in the club, the HFD captain said. Trevino said firefighters believed that people might still be inside.
Today, the state fire marshal’s office and NIOSH are beginning the process of studying Burke’s death in an abandoned home in Sunnyside, an area of southeast Houston.
Preliminary information indicates that Burke, 39, who worked out of Station 46 in District 46, led a crew into the building about 6 a.m. Feb. 19 because he believed someone might be inside, Boriskie said. The crew lacked a thermal imaging camera.
The veteran HFD official said, “I would have done the same thing.”
Boriskie, a senior captain at Station 33 in District 46 from 1993 to 1998, said, “These firefighters in District 46 are very motivated, they are very loyal. They take a lot of pride in what they do.”
Chief stands by policy
It would be easy for HFD to greatly reduce the risk that another firefighter will die, Boriskie said. The department, he said, could rewrite procedures and forbid crews from going into nearly all burning buildings. Their goal would then be to surround the fires and drown them with water, a more defensive tactic.
But HFD has no intention of so drastically altering its mission, Boriskie said. “As firefighters, we are willing to go down the doorway to death to save a life, and that is what we do,” he said.
Jack Williams, an HFD spokesman, said firefighters do have to exercise caution. He noted that with air packs connected to a sophisticated breathing apparatus and modern fire-retardant clothing, firefighters can stay inside burning buildings much longer than before. But he stressed that the department trains its firefighters to guard against a false sense of security.
“You aren’t invincible,” he said