City: Violations unrelated to firefighters’ deaths

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
City Manager David Treme and Fire Chief Bob Parnell said workplace violations cited Wednesday in the aftermath of the March 7 fire at Salisbury Millwork did not contribute to the deaths of firefighters Victor Isler and Justin Monroe.
Several of the state violations dealt with policy or paperwork issues, not practices the Fire Department followed that day or how it operates overall, the city officials said.
But the Fire Department has set in motion the purchase of 60 to 65 “frontline” portable radios to replace a model that malfunctioned for the hose team that got caught in the woodworking plant.
Treme said the portable radios in action March 7 are good ó and used by nearly every other department in the county ó but the latest Motorola model will be better for “rugged treatment” in fire, smoke and water.
“And we were in a pretty rugged environment,” Treme said.
The current frontline radios will be redistributed elsewhere among city departments.
A failure of the radios to transmit was not among the $6,563 worth of violations cited Wednesday by the Occupational Safety and Health Division of the N.C. Department of Labor.
Occupational Safety Compliance District Supervisor Paul Sullivan recommended in a cover letter with the citations that the Fire Department “take action on the portable radio issues that hampered communication during the fire.”
One of the violations noted that a firefighter ó Parnell identified him as Monroe ó was sent out of the warehouse/shipping area to inform command personnel that his Quint 4/Squad 1 team was OK, “as their radios were not transmitting.”
The state cited this as a violation because Monroe traveled 75 feet to the exit by himself and did not remain in contact visually or by voice with another firefighter, according to the citation.
The state statute says with interior structure fires, the employer must ensure that at least two employees enter what’s called the “Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health” atmosphere and remain in visual or voice contact with one another at all times.
Parnell and Battalion Chief David Morris contend Monroe was still within sight of his team when he was standing at the exit door and communicating that the hose team was OK.
Monroe turned and started back inside the building to rejoin his team when, in an instant, fire broke through three interior firewalls from the office area and put the team that included Capt. Rick Barkley, Isler and Monroe in peril.
Monroe became separated from his team members.
Parnell and Treme acknowledged an instance when another firefighter on the team erred in leaving the woodworking plant by himself to change out an air pack, putting him out of voice or visual contact with another firefighter.
Parnell emphasized his firefighters are well aware of the standard requiring firefighters to work in teams and have followed that practice for years. Before the fire broke loose into what had been a controlled area, the firefighters had reason to believe they were not in an Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health area, the chief noted.
The state also cites the Fire Department for not ensuring that “at least two employees were located outside the “Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health atmosphere.” It says the initial fire attack into the basement of the office area was made by crews from Quint 2 and Rescue 1 without leaving at least two firefighters outside the structure.
Treme and Parnell contradict that finding.
Treme said the department actually followed its normal practice of having a safety officer, incident officer and engineer outside of the building at the initial attack. But that standard procedure is not reflected in the policy the Fire Department has on the books.
“It doesn’t designate that we have those people there,” Treme said, but they were.
Other violations cited related to self-contained breathing apparatus.
One citation says employees using face masks ó “face-piece respirators” ó were not fit-tested “prior to initial use and at least annually thereafter.”
Parnell and Treme stressed that Isler and Monroe were wearing masks fit-tested to their particular facial features.
They said the violations cited actually involved three other masks ó out of more than 100 fit-tested since 2003 ó for which the state investigation could not find documentation of their testing.
Parnell acknowledged his department was not aware of a modification in the law last year that requires the annual fit-testing of face-piece respirators connected with the air packs.
The city has since modified that policy, and Parnell said all firefighters have been fit-tested with their breathing apparatus and will be every year.
Another matter related to air packs cited the city for having a respiratory protection program that “did not include procedures to ensure adequate air quality, quantity and flow of breathing air for atmosphere-supplying respirators.”
Again, Treme said, the Fire Department’s Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) Safety Policy did not reflect what it actually has been practicing.
The department has a vendor come in twice a year to test SCBA respirator air quality and quantity, Treme said, but the policy failed to state that, “even though we showed them (OSH) we’ve done it.”
The policy has been changed to reflect the practice of testing.
Treme, who first saw the state findings at midday Wednesday and didn’t have time to fully digest the 16-page fax transmission, said the city respects the Occupational Safety and Health Division and its efforts to follow the letter of the law.
“Anytime you have a workplace fatality, they look at everything,” Treme said.
In his cover letter, which is rare to accompany work safety citations, Sullivan said the compliance officers found the Salisbury Fire Department to have “a well-written and effective safety program.”
Salisbury firefighters are equipped with proper equipment, Sullivan added, and he noted that Salisbury followed the proper incident command system and designation of duties as the magnitude of the fire increased.
Sullivan said firefighter safety clearly was the top priority at the March 7 fire, as the department alternated between offensive and defensive tactics based on the conditions.