The “No Go Team” – Firefighters Die, No One Cares
Incompetence, lack of funds, poor management – who knows what the exact cause is. But the agency given the charge of investigating firefighter deaths is failing to do its job.
What follows are several excerpts from Bill Dedman’s very long report on MSNBC, on the Centers for Disease Control’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and their failure to properly investigate every death of a firefighter in the line of duty.
But first, here’s why this is important to me:
That’s my son. He’s 17 and a junior volunteer firefighter. I also have a brother and an ex-husband who are volunteer firefighters. And you can bet your life that if something happens to any of them while on a scene, I will be raising a hue and cry the likes of which have never been seen before until I get an answer on how and why it happened, and what could be done to keep it from happening to others.
So, raise a ruckus with your CongressCritters and tell them to do what it takes to make sure the CDC is properly funded and staffed and motivated to investigate EVERY. SINGLE. DEATH. of EVERY. SINGLE. FIREFIGHTER.
From MSNBC.com: [all emphasis mine]
The CDC didn’t ask for the job of investigating firefighter fatalities. That job was handed to it, after a union boss got a seat next to President Clinton on Air Force One. They were talking blue windbreakers.
After a plane or train crash, the National Transportation Safety Board dispatches its experts within two hours. The investigators in their familiar jackets take charge of the scene, secure evidence, follow leads.
After a decade and more than 300 investigations, how is the CDC doing?
Call it the “No Go Team.”
An investigation by MSNBC.com shows that the CDC routinely takes as long as a month — and sometimes as long as nine months — to visit the scene of firefighter deaths. The CDC also:
- Doesn’t investigate a death at all if the fire department or fire union raises an objection.
- Has cut back in the past three years on the number of investigations.
- Destroys information that could help identify patterns of hazards with firefighting equipment, training and tactics.
About 100 firefighters each year die on the job in the U.S. The number had been declining until the early 1990s, when it flattened out. It has stayed at 100 (not counting the 343 firefighters who died on Sept. 11, 2001), which means that the death rate per fire has climbed sharply, because fire safety efforts and smoke detectors have substantially reduced the number of fires. The number of structure fires fell by about one-eighth just in the past decade.
Last year was typical, with 104 firefighters dying in the line of duty, according to the memorial list kept by the U.S. Fire Administration.
MSNBC.com found that the CDC delays sending investigators to the scene of firefighter fatalities. Although its investigation manual calls for a site visit within three weeks, the typical or median delay is actually 33 days, according to investigative reports studied by MSNBC.com. The longest delay was 266 days, or just about nine months.
In St. Louis, after two firefighters died on May 3, 2002, the CDC team traveled from Morgantown on June 24, a delay of 52 days.
Even in Worcester, Mass., where six firefighters died on Dec. 3, 1999, the CDC managers didn’t want to send anyone immediately to investigate, said Schmidt, the former CDC fire prevention engineer. He said he called a CDC manager at home.
“And his comment to me was, ‘Well, that’s not what we do. We’ll get up there in a couple of weeks,’” Schmidt said. “But the next day, I see that they’d all left to go up there.”
Castillo confirmed that the CDC went to Worcester immediately, only because the firefighter union called.
Although the CDC told the association of five firefighter deaths that occurred where PASS alarms weren’t heard, MSNBC.com found 15 in its review of the agency’s reports.
The CDC didn’t identify the manufacturers, say when the alarms were made, or how they were maintained.
The CDC didn’t say, because it didn’t know.
The CDC investigators don’t collect the same information in every fire about firefighter equipment or clothing. Castillo said it is left to individual investigators to judge which information to collect on each case.
And once the information is collected, the CDC often destroys it.
Castillo confirmed that the program keeps only the information in the reports it issues on firefighter deaths and the information in the CDC’s investigations database. But MSNBC.com found that neither of those repositories has information on the make or model of PASS devices, or boots, hose lines, fire engines or any other gear that firefighters rely on — except for air supplies, for which the CDC is the certifying agency.
Please read the entire story here.
Also read Bill Dedman’s previous report on the same agency’s ignoring a warning in 2000 about the failure of PASS alarms, meant to sound when a firefighter falls and/or fails to move for more than 30 seconds, allowing other personnel to locate and rescue them.
Some alarms are apparently malfunctioning when exposed to – you won’t believe this – heat and water.
UPDATE: 2/6/07 – 11:01pm EST
Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) is calling on the Dept. of Health and Human Services to investigate criticisms that the CDC ignored a 2000 warning that PASS systems were not working properly.
“It is completely unacceptable that our first responders don’t have the proper safety equipment, and if these allegations prove true, it’s unfathomable that the CDC would cover up something so detrimental to our firefighters’ safety,” Kerry told MSNBC.com. “I have asked the Department of Health and Human Services to launch a full investigation into these allegations. Nearly 1 million brave men and women risk their lives every day; we owe it to them and to the families of the deceased firefighters to get answers and hold the negligent parties accountable.”
Within hours of the story’s publication, Kerry’s office issued a press release stating that the Massachusetts Democrat had written to HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson requesting the investigation of the unit of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention charged with investigating firefighters’ deaths.