A day after releasing a scathing after-action report on the Gloucester Fire Department's handling of the March 4 Pleasant Street fire, Mayor Carolyn Kirk on Friday called for all city firefighters to obtain and maintain a minimum level of State Fire Academy training certification — a minimum that fewer than half of the firefighters have.
In a Thursday memo to Fire Chief Philip Dench, she requested that he organize a task force to include himself, the four deputy fire chiefs, Kirk, and Chief Administrative Officer Jim Duggan.
That task force would see that recommendations spelled out in the Municipal Resources Inc. report get implemented through department policy.
In a Friday interview with the times, Kirk suggested that the department needs tp improve dispatch, and said the city should take a new look at joining a regional 911 dispatch system, which the department resisted and the city declined to do when the Essex County regional dispatch program was being developed last year.
The city, Kirk said, would also consider a joint public safety building for police and fire personnel, adding that the city would continue to upgrade Fire Department equipment, but only with specific goals.
"I'm willing to secure resources," Kirk said, "but there has to be a plan. We're not just going to throw money at the department."
Neither Dench nor Deputy Chief Miles Schlichte, who served as incident commander at the Pleasant Street fire and is the city's emergency management coordinator, returned calls seeking comment Friday.
But Deputy Chief Steven Aiello said the city should start with Kirk's proposed task force. That task force, he said, should make recommendations based not only on the Pleasant Street report, but the 2009 report on the December 2007 Middle Street fire, and the Fire Department management audit. All three documents have been delivered to the city by the New Hampshire-based MRI firm, with a series of specific recommendations.
"It's three strikes, you're out," Aiello said. "It's time that all interested parties work to accomplish common goals — goals that were spelled out time after time, after time."
Few and far between
In her memo to Dench and in Friday's Times interview, Kirk addressed what she found a lack of formal training within the Fire Department.
Firefighters' union president Phillip Bouchie said that somewhere around half of the firefighters don't have professional certification from the State Fire Academy in Stowe.
He said that, in prior years, the department didn't make training a priority. But he added that, 10 years ago, the union requested that all new firefighters start off at the academy. Bouchie said last month that three graduated from the academy with "Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2" certification.
The MRI after-action report — drawn from an investigation and findings of Portsmouth, N.H., Fire Chief Christopher LeClaire — recommends that all personnel in Gloucester's department undergo advanced training in multiple alarm firefighting tactics. MRI stated that the department should establish annual training goals, and detailed daily training plans.
Aiello said that daily training periods aren't always possible for the department.
He said the department doesn't have a full-time training officer and the current training officer, Andrew McRobb, serves as a shift deputy chief and isn't on duty operating across the three shifts. Aiello added that the frequency of medical aid calls also interrupts time for training, because many of the firefighters also serves as paramedics.
Bouchie said the union negotiated for $33,000 for training, but he also said that much of the Fire Department's training problems come from low staffing.
He said training within the department is sporadic. He said that the city hasn't taken up the department's staffing issues, now written about in all three MRI reports.
"Staffing has been an issue in every report," he said in an e-mail message, "and that has been completely ignored."
Kirk, however, said the department's training problems are discipline issues, and that the department needs to make it a priority.
"There's a lot of inconsistency," she said.
Aiello said the reports focused on practical and academy officer training. He said the department lacked simulation training, especially concerning response to major fires.
"Because large-scale incidents are few and far between, some officers don't have experience in those kinds of incidents," he said.
He added that the department doesn't have a standard operating procedure for large fires; Schlichte is now working on one, Aiello said.
Though the final MRI report released by the city gives low marks to the Fire Department's command actions and procedures during the Pleasant Street fiew, which ravaged the building at 14 Pleasant, and heavily damaged the adjoining one at 16 Pleasant in two separate fire bursts, Bouchie said the final draft softened some of the initial draft language.
Kirk had said that any language changes would be made by the auditing company and that city officials had no editorial license with the report, though, upon review, they twice sent the report back to MRI to address "factual" errors.
While the final report states that the department's use of a positive pressure ventilator, essentially a large leaf-blower, to vent smoke up through skylights and the door to the roof, was "especially troubling," the draft report went a step further.
"There appears to be no sound reason why vertical ventilation was ordered on this fire," states MRI's initial report. Both the final report and previous drafts were released to the Times.
The fire that ultimately gutted 14 Pleasant St. and damaged 16 Pleasant broke out shortly after 6 a.m. Firefighters and commanders thought they had extinguished the blaze. But, after the department pulled equipment back, the fire broke out a second time an hour later, after apparently eluding thermal imaging cameras.
The fire gutted parts of the office and upstairs apartment of attorney Patricia Schlichte-Johnstone and her husband, city assessor Gary Johnstone. Schlichte-Johnstone is the deputy chief's sister.
After the initial fire was thought to have been down for the count, Schlichte rotated crews, an hour after the first response. As the crews rotated, the command released several engines, including Rockport firefighters who had also responded. But, by 8:30 a.m. according to the report, the fire kicked up again, and crews were on the scene pulling on ceilings and walls before Schlichte and Aiello, recalling in all engines, sounded a third alarm.
Crews reported fire coming in from everywhere they punched holes, with the blaze roaring in the walls and ceiling.
Municipal Resources took issue with the shift change, and Aiello conceded Friday that the change may have exacerbated the blaze.
He said the oncoming shift assumed the fire was out, and didn't pull ceilings. He said the building had a series of ceilings, forming three layers. Those layers, he said, may have befuddled firefighters' thermal imaging cameras.
Though the department thought the blaze was extinguished after checking with the cameras, MRI indicated that the cameras were "no substitute" for taking down ceilings. The report also found the Fire Department's decision to use a positive-pressure ventilating fan "especially troubling."
"The reported use of a positive-pressure ventilation in the front door is especially troubling as this would intensify the fire due to the rapid influx of oxygen and strong wind currents forced into the fire area," the report states.
The report, however, indicates that MRI was unable to confirm who gave the order for setting up the venting system.
Despite the report's findings, Aiello noted that the Fire Department responds to and extinguishes nine out of 10 fires without issues. The city only calls for after action-reports when things don't go well, he said, adding that the department made mistakes, and will learn from them.
"This one fire shouldn't be the fire people judge their firefighters on," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, they do it right."
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.