Worcester (MA) is moving forward with a study of the Fire Department, nearly a year after pledging to review firefighter safety in wake of the Line-of-Duty death of Lt. Jason Menard. The city said this week it had hired Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI) to study the Fire Department. The consultant is seeking input about the department through survey questions posed to community and business stakeholders in the city.
The study will lead to an in-depth internal assessment and strategic plan, the city said in a statement. The surveys aim to help ensure that the resulting strategic plan meets the expectations of the city and its residents. On Nov. 13, a house fire on Stockholm Street claimed the life of Menard at age 39. His was the department’s second line-of-duty death in less than a year. A month after the death of Menard, a married father of three, City Manager Edward M. Augustus, Jr. announced his intention to name a task force to look at firefighter safety.
Instead, city officials opted to hire a company to study the department, Deputy Fire Chief Martin Dyer said in an interview. “The goal is to ensure that the Worcester Fire Department has the proper resources, training and best practices to meet the standards of the department’s mission while increasing the health and safety of our firefighters,” the city’s statement about the study read.
In an interview, Dyer, the department spokesman, said the company would be paid just under $100,000. Dyer said the money was authorized earlier this year, and the city had hoped to have the study completed by now. It was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. “They’re doing all the work they can remotely with data we’ve provided, but we still need them to come on-site,” Dyer said.
In essence, the consultant will “take a snapshot of where the Fire Department is today” based on National Fire Protection Association standards, industry best practices, standards of cover, the department’s firefighting response model, resources it sends to fires, and documentation, Dyer said. The consultant would in turn produce a community-risk assessment and a strategic plan.
“It all leads to the items that we need in place to seek accreditation,” Dyer said, explaining that the study would coalesce with the five-year accreditation process.
“That’s where we really begin a process of continuous improvement,” he said. “We’re constantly going to be reassessing what we do, how well we do it, and does it meet national benchmarks,” Dyer said. “I believe that is going to lead to a better department, to meet our important mission in the community.”
The department had already noted areas aimed at enhancing firefighter safety during the fiscal year that ended June 30.
It implemented a 24-hour Incident Safety Officer program through which the officer is immediately dispatched for any serious call, including all structure fires. The incident safety officer has no tactical responsibility. Instead, his sole focus is to work with the incident commander to ensure firefighter safety, Fire Chief Michael J. Lavoie wrote in his budget overview. Lavoie called the dedicated officer “a major safety enhancement to our operations.”
The department also obtained an Assistance to Firefighters grant for thermal imaging cameras for every apparatus. Previously, only aerial ladder trucks and rescue units had thermal imaging cameras, Lavoie wrote in the budget statement.
“This is a strong enhancement in firefighter safety and situational awareness,” the chief said.
During a Fire Department event last week, Augustus noted that Worcester has a lot of old apartment buildings. More than 23% of the city’s housing stock are buildings with three or more units, while nearly 43% of the housing stock was built before 1939.
“That means we’ve got an older housing stock that is even more susceptible to fires, and to the injuries and to the fatalities that can accompany those fires,” Augustus said. “So we need to be extra vigilant in a city like Worcester with that older housing stock.”
In addition to Menard, there’s been one civilian fatality within the last 12 months, as well as seven civilian injuries, several of which were severe, and 29 firefighter injuries since Oct. 1, 2019.
The city estimated $27 million in losses due to fires during the 12-month span. Meanwhile, the department isn’t without its critics regarding firefighter safety.
After Menard’s death, Kathy Spencer, the widow of Lt. Thomas Spencer, one of the six city firefighters who died in the Worcester Cold Storage & Warehouse Co. fire on Dec. 3, 1999, called for better Fire Department training, among other suggestions. “Blaming triple-deckers or other unique structures is not enough,” Spencer, also the mother of current Worcester firefighter, Daniel Spencer, wrote in a Nov. 19 opinion piece.
“Firefighter deaths do not happen with such regularity in other cities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts which have similar multifamily dwellings.”