Fed report cites miscommunication, errors in 2012 fire that killed captain
BY CASEY TONER Sun-Times Media December 3, 2013 12:58AM
Chicago Fire Department investigators at the scene of a fire that killed Chicago Fire Department Capt. Herbert Johnson at 2315 W. 50th Place in Chicago, Ill., on Saturday, November 3, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 3, 2013 4:40PM
Chicago firefighters heard Capt. Herbie Johnson yell, “Get out of here!” before they found him unconscious on a second-story floor during a deadly apartment building fire on Nov. 2, 2012.
A firefighter/paramedic from Chicago Fire Engine 123 was nearby and found Johnson on the floor.
He didn’t have a radio and he couldn’t find Johnson’s radio to send a signal to notify others that Johnson was down, so he screamed the distress call to anyone within earshot: “Mayday!”
The chaotic scene is detailed in the findings of an almost yearlong federal investigation into the death of Johnson, 54. He died of injuries sustained in the fire in the 2300 block of west 50th Street. He became the first Chicago firefighter to die in the line of duty since 2010.
The deaths of all firefighters in the line of duty are probed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program.
The NIOSH report, published in September, stated that improper risk assessment, a lack of protective equipment, miscommunication and low staffing levels were among contributing factors leading to Johnson’s death.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel responded Tuesday to the critical federal report by demanding answers from the Chicago Fire Department.
“My office has talked to [Fire Commissioner] Jose Santiago and the Fire Department this morning and told him I want to see their response to that report and the recommendations they have in it, so we don’t see what happened to Mr. [Herbie] Johnson happen again and that we have the type of training to ensure that doesn’t happen again,” the mayor said.
According to the report, Johnson and other firefighters went up to the second floor of the building even after a second-story resident told the incident commander no one else was up there.
“Risks taken to save property should always be less than those to save lives,” the report states.
Johnson was not wearing the proper protective gear during the incident, the report states. He was not wearing his firefighting hood or gloves, causing him to suffer burns on the unprotected areas. He also may have started to have problems breathing when he was retreating toward a second-story kitchen, possibly dislodging his facepiece along the way.
The report also says the incident commander ordered a firefighter to douse flames in the building’s attic without confirmation from Johnson, who was inside the building and “may have moved into harms way,” or may have already been injured.
The report states that the incident commander radioed Johnson about another firefighter’s action during the incident but never heard a reply. It also says that at one point, a firefighter opened a set of doors on the first floor and “saw the fire accelerate in the rear stairway,” but did not alert Johnson or the commanding officer.
According to the report, the commander also did not immediately create a separate space, called a “command post,” to delegate firefighting responsibilities
The commander — who walked into the building when it was on fire, risking injury — was putting on his firefighting gear outside the building when the “Mayday,” call came through.
Additionally, two of the companies that initially responded to the fire were each riding one person short.
“A full complement of personnel would have provided two additional firefighters to aid in the ongoing size-up and to access fire behavior,” the report states. “Also, they would have provided a more efficient search and fire suppression, respectively.”
The report marks the second in two years that NIOSH has cited communications breakdowns as a contributing factor to the death of a Chicago firefighter.
The last report blamed a shortage of radios, in part, for the death of the two firefighters at an abandoned laundry whose owner was subsequently charged with criminal contempt for allegedly ignoring a court order to secure the building and repair a roof that collapsed during the fatal fire.
On Dec. 22, 2010, firefighters Corey Ankum, 34, and Edward Stringer, 47, were killed — and 15 other firefighters injured — when the truss roof collapsed at a vacant and unsecured commercial building at 1744 E. 75th St. that had become a winter refuge for homeless residents suspected of starting the fire to stay warm.
The federal report noted that only five of the 13 firefighters inside the laundry at the time of the roof collapse were carrying radios and that only one of those five firefighters reported having used the radio to issue a mayday call.
Then-Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff responded by defending his decision to delay the switch to 5,000 digital radios — five years after the Motorola radios were purchased under a $23 million no-bid contract that had been awarded under questionable circumstances.