By Steven Fletcher
Nearly four months after a fire gutted the historic building at 14 Pleasant St., the city-commissioned, after-incident report's still smouldering in City Hall.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk's office requested that a consulting company assess the Fire Department's response to the March blaze, which broke out shortly after 6 a.m., and flared again about an hour after incident commander, city emergency management director and Deputy Fire Chief Miles Schlichte pulled the firefighters back, believing the blaze had been extinguished.
The mayor asked the consultants to review the department's tactics in extinguishing the fire at the Schlichte Johnstone Building — home of the deputy chief's sister and her husband — and how the incident command team managed it.
But while the first draft of that assessment hit the mayor's desk last month, she sent it back for the auditing firm to revise. The second draft returned to city administration earlier this month, and Kirk said Tuesday she now expects a final draft before the end of July.
Kirk said the city returned the report to the auditor — Municipal Resources Incorporated (MRI) — for what the mayor calls factual errors, including the omission of the Fire Department's use of thermal imaging cameras during the incident.
MRI is the same auditing firm that carried out public safety audits last year and the after-incident report on the 2007 fire which left one man dead and destroyed the Lorraine Apartments and Temple Avahat Achim on Middle Street. That after-incident report, which came through in early 2009, delivered a scathing review of the department's on-site practices and called for a number of changes in the department's incident management.
Kirk said city officials don't have editorial license with the report. MRI is the only entity in the city's review of the report that can alter the document, she said; so far, the mayor said, only she and Chief Administrative Officer James Duggan have reviewed the report.
"No one has editorial license whatsoever," she said.
She added that Fire Chief Phillip Dench and Schlichte, a deputy chief, will review the second draft.
The report will come out far more quickly than the Lorraine report, which took 15 months to reach public eye, Kirk noted.
But the length of time for the city's review has the firefighter's union chomping at the bit.
Union president Philip Bouchie said the union can use the reports to prevent past mistakes, but would rather the document came out sooner than later.
"The union likes to see if we can improve in any way," he said. "These audits can be a tool to do just that."
Bouchie said he was concerned that the city used the same auditor for the last three major public safety reports. He said it wouldn't hurt to switch the auditor to keep the reports accurate and credible.
Kirk, however, said the report would detail several ways the Fire Department could change how it responds to fires — including requiring the dispatch and radio transmissions to be recorded for review.
"(The report) needs to focus on continuous improvement," she said, adding that the Police Department uses that type of dispatch review, but the Fire Department does not.
Fire officials have also never found or announced a cause of the Pleasant Street fire, despite the fact that some officials — including the mayor — said it was believed suspicious in origin right from the start.
The fire burned through the apartment and office of attorney Patricia Schlichte Johnstone, the deputy chief's sister, and her husband Gary Johnstone, a city assessor.
It also damaged the Raymond Agler Gallery in the next building up Pleasant from Main Street.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.