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Texas fire chief gives overview of federal report on firefighter's death

San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood offered his interpretation of a federal report to be released this week that examines the death of firefighter Scott Deem


By Emilie Eaton
San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO — San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood offered his interpretation of a federal report to be released this week that examines the circumstances surrounding the death of firefighter Scott Deem.

He has seen a preliminary copy of the review that was conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, an institute within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He declined to provide a copy prior to its official release but pre-emptively gave an overview of its conclusions during an interview Monday with the Express-News.

Firefighter Scott Deem died last year in a horrific blaze at the Spartan Gym. (Photo/San Antonio Fire Dept.)
Firefighter Scott Deem died last year in a horrific blaze at the Spartan Gym. (Photo/San Antonio Fire Dept.)

Hood said he was doing so to make sure reporters understood the nuance of a report that was not written for laypeople. Reporters from local TV and radio stations were not included in the meeting.

“It’s a training document, and so a reporter is going to look at that and they’re going to gloss over about the first two minutes,” Hood said. “That’s why I wanted to sit down with you and try to give you an opportunity to understand it, to get things right.”

According to Hood, the report identifies seven factors that contributed to Deem’s death during a fire last year at a Northwest strip mall. Two firefighters were injured, including one who was with Deem and is still recovering from severe burns.

Hood said one factor was strong winds that fueled the fire. Another was freelancing tactics, which refers to firefighters carrying out tasks without approval from the incident commander.

The report lists nearly 20 recommendations to prevent similar on-duty deaths. Hood said he agrees with the suggestions made in the review that focus on training and firefighting tactics. He emphasized that the department has taken steps to prevent similar on-duty injuries and fatalities, including the development of a training facility dedicated to the 31-year-old Deem.

The training facility has props, and firefighters go through exercises to escape from fake entrapments, entanglements and zero-visibility conditions.

“We are literally putting our money where our mouth is,” Hood said.

The report comes seven months after a Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office investigation identified 11 mistakes that were made as firefighters battled the massive blaze at the Ingram Square Shopping Center on May 18, 2017.

That investigation described Deem’s death as “preventable” and said the department lacked accountability.

He said at least one suggestion listed in the NIOSH report — that fire departments should provide all firefighters with radios and train them on their proper use — was not an issue in the fire.

“Everybody has radios. Everybody has mics,” Hood said. “We have all of that.”

“If you put radios in anything you write, then I’ve wasted my time,” Hood told reporters.

Hood briefed City Council members on the contents of the report during a meeting last week that was closed to the public, citing possible “legal issues.”

However, in Monday’s meeting with reporters he said there were no possible legal repercussions he was aware of.

“It was more to allow us to get that information out to council, but there are no regulating agencies that are going to sue us whatsoever,” Hood said. “The only reason we really put that there was to kind of slow down the press in terms of them lining up outside B session for us.”

The NIOSH investigation is a voluntary program that seeks to educate fire agencies and prevent similar firefighter injuries and deaths, not determine fault. It does not name of the deceased firefighter or the agency.

The fire department has a chance to review and revise the report prior to its official release.

Moving forward, Hood said the department needs to focus on learning from the mistakes and forgiving itself. He has said in the past that the real blame for the fire falls on the person who intentionally set the fire inside the Spartan Box gym, allegedly to get out of his lease.

Emond Javor Johnson, 39, the owner of the gym where the fire started, has been indicted on five felony charges, including arson and murder. He remains in jail as he awaits trial.

Copyright 2018 San Antonio Express-News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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