Who Is to Blame?

Who Is to Blame?



The three caskets holding the bodies of Oakland County, Mich., firefighters were carried on separate fire trucks. About 3,000 firefighters attended the service honoring Marsha Baczynski, Robert Gregory, and Thomas Phelps. The three volunteers died early on a Sunday morning in October when fire burst out of control in a century-old farmhouse, trapping them on the second floor.

The fire, as most of us know by now, was a training exercise—a “practice fire” set with flammable liquids. It exploded out of control seconds after ignition—so fast there was nothing exterior teams could do.

Horror and frustration showed on the faces of all who heard the story. The newspapers and political factions were quick to blame. Names and accusations glared out of the front-page stories of the Michigan press. Shocked, saddened, and scared volunteer members already burdened with doubt were blamed further by Monday-morning investigators.

The reports contain evidence of a lack of training-fire basics and safety concerns among the on-scene decision-makers. Insufficiencies in laddering, the use of precautionary charged hose lines, communication, and control of personnel, as well as indiscriminate use of accelerants, all seem to have played a significant part in the disaster.

Live fire training has its value, and NFPA 1403, “Live Fire Training Involutions in Structures,” sets many of the guidelines to try to put safety into a risky situation. It doesn’t appear that many of these techniques were used that Sunday morning, as link after link was added to the chain of disaster. We train to learn basics, but missing here were the awareness and coordination of and instruction in the basics of training itself.

This is true on more than the local level. With all the safeguards in place, we are still trying to accomplish our objectives with mirrors. Safe and effective training takes money, too. I watched as the Michigan State Framing Council was told that the $15 million allocated for training had been shaved down, until the final amount turned over was $651,000. It seems diabolical that some of those now fingering the blame may have had a part in cutting the annual training budget to a sum that would have a tough time making a scratch in the problem.

Ihere is indeed a wider range within which to lay blame. Still, though, the bottom line is that, since 1977, we have lost 36 firefighters in training incidents. When are we going to learn from each other? Burning down piece-of-junk “chicken coops” with live firefighters operating inside to learn sketchy lessons is not a positive operation worth the risk.

I raining is one of the few situations we can control, and live fire training must be the most controlled of all.

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While discussing fire insurance at a banquet given recently at Chicago by the Illinois Manufacturers’ association, Edward Atkinson, of Boston, said that the “fire tax of this country, running at the rate of $150,000,000 a year on the average, is not only a very great burden upon the country, but it is to the utter discredit of those who belong to the most intelligent class in the community—the owners, occupants, and managers of the largest works and establishments in which more than three-quarters of this annual loss is incurred. The great number of small fires readily extinguished with small loss each constitute not over twenty-five per cent, of the total annual loss; the other seventy-five per cent, of loss, incurred in a relatively very small number of establishments. is due in about even proportions to ignorance in construction, neglect to apply safeguards, and carelessness or criminal negligence among occupants. While owners and occupants must be held mainly responsible for this great ashheap, the responsibility is shared by architects and builders, who are not masters of their professions, or have not sufficient influence to induce owners to adopt their methods. In fact, the apparent cheapness with which contracts of indemnity against loss by fire have been supplied at low rates of premium has, I think, led to an increase in the hazard and in the losses.”