State finds 'serious' violations after fatal fire

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
A compliance inspection conducted after the fatal March 7 fire at Salisbury Millwork has led state officials to cite the Salisbury Fire Department for three “serious” violations and assess the city $6,563 in penalties.
The Occupational Safety and Health Division of the N.C. Department of Labor issued the citations Wednesday.
The state agency also cited the Locke Township Fire Department for two serious violations and one non-serious violation. The volunteer department, which aided Salisbury at the millwork plant fire, faces penalties of $700.
Locke Fire Chief Rusty Alexander said Wednesday he was aware of the state findings and his department is in the process of resolving those violations.
He said his department came under state investigation because three members of the department’s rapid intervention team were injured while rescuing Salisbury Fire Capt. Rick Barkley, who also was hurt.
Alexander said state officials reduced their recommended fines because of Locke’s quick response to their findings. (See more on the findings related to Locke in accompanying article.)
The $2 million fire claimed the lives of Salisbury firefighters Justin Monroe and Victor Isler and destroyed the main millworking plant’s offices, manufacturing and shipping/warehouse areas.
In a cover letter to Salisbury Fire Chief Bob Parnell, Occupational Safety and Health Compliance District Supervisor Paul Sullivan also recommended that the Salisbury Fire Department “investigate and take action on the portable radio issues that hampered communication during the fire.”
“Additionally, it is recommended that all firefighters be retrained on firefighter survival skills, including, but not limited to, the use of the ‘Mayday’ call by all personnel at the first sign of a life-threatening situation.”
Sullivan had praise for the Salisbury department, too, and the cooperation his office received during and after its inspection.
Breathing apparatus
One of the violations listed for the Salisbury Fire Department deals with the lack of fit-testing for face-piece respirators used in connection with the Scott Air Pack self-contained breathing apparatus. The air packs are used by firefighters inside burning buildings.
The state said the department’s respiratory protection program also didn’t include procedures “to ensure adequate air quality, quantity and flow of breathing air for atmosphere-supplying respirators.”
The items connected to the breathing apparatus carried a fine of $2,275.
A second violation dealt with the Fire Department not ensuring that, in an interior structural fire, at least two firefighters entered the “Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health” atmosphere and remained in visual or voice contact with one another at all times.
According to the citation, this requirement was violated four times during the fire:
– Equipped with an air pack, a firefighter working the fire in the warehouse/shipping area received a low air supply alarm and followed the hose line approximately 75 feet to the exit alone, without remaining in visual or voice contact with another firefighter.
– A firefighter working in the warehouse/shipping area was sent out to inform command personnel that the Quint 4/Squad 1 team “was all right, as their radios were not transmitting.” The firefighter traveled approximately 75 feet to the exit alone, without remaining in visual or voice contact with another firefighter.
– A firefighter in the warehouse/shipping area re-entered the building alone after communicating the status of his Quint 4/Squad 1 team to command personnel. “The firefighter entered the building to rejoin his team, without being in visual or voice contact with another firefighter,” the investigation said.
– A firefighter re-entered the building alone after changing his air bottle, walking approximately 30 feet into the building to rejoin his team, again without being in visual or voice contact.
This second serious violation collectively was assessed a $3,150 penalty.
Keeping two outside
The third serious violation cited the Salisbury department for not ensuring that at least two firefighters remained outside the Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health atmosphere.
The compliance investigation determined that Quint 2 and Rescue 1 made the initial fire attack in the basement of the office area before the department established a team of at least two firefighters outside the structure “that were monitoring conditions and properly equipped to facilitate rescue activities.”
The third serious violation carried a penalty of $1,138.
The citations and notification of penalties essentially describe violations of labor laws in Chapter 95 of the N.C. general statutes. The violations are “alleged.”
The Salisbury and Locke departments have the right to contest and ask for an informal conference with the state. For violations not contested, they must show, in some cases, that corrective action has been taken.
With the violations connected to the breathing apparatus, for example, Salisbury has until Sept. 23 to abate the problems cited.
Sullivan said even though violations were identified, “the compliance officers found the Salisbury Fire Department to have a well-written and effective safety program.”
Sullivan said firefighters were equipped with the proper turnout gear and self-contained breathing apparatus with 45-minute bottles. An incident command system also had been established and various management functions were delegated to other officers as the fire’s magnitude increased, Sullivan said.
“Additionally,” Sullivan said, “it was clear that firefighter safety was the top priority at the fire, as operations alternated between offensive and defensive based on conditions and frequent personnel accountability reports were taken.”