Maine fire department cited for 5 violations after fatal fire

Maine Department of Labor investigators didn't state whether any of the problems contributed to Capt. Joel Barnes' line-of-duty death in March


By Kyle Stucker
Foster's Daily Democrat

BERWICK, Maine — The town's Fire Department was cited with five labor violations due to issues discovered during the investigation into Capt. Joel Barnes' line-of-duty death in March.

Maine Department of Labor investigators don't state in their official report whether any of the problems contributed to Barnes' death on March 1.

Berwick Town Manager Steve Eldridge denied such a connection in a statement he released Friday.

"The findings in the Department of Labor report (were) not contributing factors in Capt. Barnes death," Eldridge wrote. "When there are events like what occurred on March 1, 2019, all public safety personnel react and use their training to save lives and property."

Barnes, 32, died while fighting a fire at 10 Bell St. on the morning of March 1. The state fire marshal has said improperly discarded smoking materials caused the fire, which injured four other firefighters.

Officials have said Barnes died while sacrificing himself to save another firefighter, throwing his own body atop his colleague to shield him as they encountered a wall of flames on the apartment building's third floor.

The labor violations, as outlined in a report released by the Department of Labor, were the result of a March 5 inspection at 10 Bell St. Investigators sent the report to Berwick on May 21, according to the report.

Investigators issued three of the violations because of actions involving the incident commander at the fire scene, according to the report.

One of those violations states the incident commander "did not evaluate the risk to employee's safety by performing a 360-degree size up before entry into the building."

Another states firefighter rescue was delayed because the incident commander didn't initiate the department's accountability system at the beginning of the operation.

Another states the incident commander failed to "establish a line of communications which allowed all responding units (police, fire and EMS) to be able to communicate with each other as agencies arrived on scene and during known victim rescue."

According to a WMTW report, Barnes was the first firefighter to arrive on scene and served as the initial incident commander as he ran into the building shortly after learning a person was trapped inside.

The two other violations related to Berwick's self-contained air tanks, according to the Department of Labor report. Investigators found multiple tanks were beyond the manufacturer's recommended lifespan, and that the tanks and associated face pieces weren't inspected weekly.

The five violations originally included a penalty of $3,500 and abatement deadline of June 24.

Eldridge and Maine Department of Labor spokesperson Jessica Picard confirmed Friday that Berwick has resolved the issues outlined in the violations.

"Berwick and the Berwick Fire Department take the report from the Maine Department of Labor very seriously and have corrected all the issues that were identified," Eldridge wrote in his statement.

According to Picard, Berwick paid reduced total of $350 in fines while resolving the citations.

"The employer chose to have a penalty discussion and show documentation that all hazards had been abated," Picard wrote in an email. "When this happens the Department of Labor will often reduce fines up to 90%."

Eldridge wrote in his statement that Berwick officials are "committed to doing everything we can to keep our first responders safe." In doing so, Eldridge noted the Berwick Fire Department has received the Safety and Health Award for Public Employers for their safety achievement program over several years.

Berwick Fire Chief Dennis Plante couldn't be immediately reached for comment for this story.

Eldridge described Barnes as a hero in his statement.

"He arrived at the scene of a house that was engulfed in flames," Eldridge wrote. "Believing that residents were inside, Capt. Barnes entered the building. He died saving the life of a fellow firefighter that day."

Barnes, an Old Orchard Beach native, began his career with that town's fire department in 2006. Barnes began working for the Berwick Fire Department in 2016 after time spent working for departments in Horry County, S.C., and in the Maine communities of South Berwick, York, and Acton.

Friends and colleagues have described Barnes as a "big friendly guy," a firefighter who "always gave 100 percent" and someone who "always had a smile on his face and a willingness to do the job."

In a statement shortly after Barnes' death and during Barnes' funeral, family members said Joel always wanted to be a firefighter.

"He died doing the job he loved, helping his brother firefighters," the Barnes family wrote in the statement. "Joel died a hero, and while nothing can ease the tremendous sense of loss and grief that we are now feeling, we are proud that his final actions were selfless."

No charges have been filed as a result of the March 1 fire.

According to Eldridge, Berwick has contacted the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to conduct a third-party investigation into the March 1 fire "so all public safety personnel can learn from this incident."

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©2019 the Foster's Daily Democrat (Dover, N.H.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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