Conn. fire union boss, batt. chiefs criticize scene command

In a letter, several leading fire officials said decisions at the 3-alarm fire needlessly put firefighters at risk


By Rich Scinto
The New Haven Register

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The fire union and the Fire Department's battalion chiefs are calling into question whether firefighters' lives were unnecessarily put at risk during the three-alarm fire that destroyed Delaney's Restaurant and Tap Room in Westville.

"Firefighters were put into harm's way after a collapse zone was established and there needs to be major changes and accountability for what happened at that fire," said union President Lt. James Kottage.

Kottage, Drillmaster Frank Ricci and eight battalion chiefs signed and sent a letter to fire Chief Allyn Wright asking that he address the issues that the group said occurred at the fire scene. Kottage also spoke with Mayor Toni Harp.

The consensus reached by the group who signed the letter was that emergency scenes should be run using the National Incident Command System. "Following these standards the senior command staff which consist of Acting Deputy Chief, the Battalion Chief, the Department Safety Officer and Training Staff should be allowed to manage, control and run a fire scene or other emergency. Based on these standards, the Chief of the Department is the Incident Commander and is the ultimate authority who can delegate accordingly using the Incident Command System," it said.

The letter went on to say that the ultimate goal was to keep firefighters and civilians safe and provide the best service possible for the city.

"What I'm demanding is that the fire scene be run by our competent command staff of battalion chiefs and acting deputy chiefs who have the education, experience and are qualified to run these fire scenes," Kottage said in an interview Friday, adding that he couldn't recall a time when an assistant chief of administration (Patrick Egan) took command of a fire scene.

Wright said despite the complexity of the fire, many things went right. No one was killed, injuries weren't serious and surrounding property was protected.

"We'll take steps to learn from this specific fire as we move forward. We strive to do better in all aspects of the fire service and not just with this fire but all fires," he said.

Wright also said as of Friday he has appointed Battalion Chief Thomas Neville to the rank of acting assistant chief of operations. The position was vacated by Ralph Black over the summer after he retired. The appointment is pending successful results of a civil service exam.

Neville is "a well-rounded and career-minded individual," Wright said. "He is an asset to this department and I'm glad he is on board."

One of the central issues in the criticism of the handling of the Delaney's fire is whether Egan and other fire department personnel were operating within a declared collapse zone. Once a collapse zone is called, fire personnel must stand clear at least 1.5 times the height of the wall.

Egan and others were using long poles to clear debris from the Whalley Avenue side of the building so that streams of water could hit flames inside the building. Egan said that he wasn't using a pole to clear debris and that a photo of him on the New Haven Independent was taken at another fire scene. Batallion Chief William Gould said he saw Egan using a pole.

The moment in question happened about five or six hours into the fire. At that point a third alarm already was in place.

Gould said he was on the roof of the nearby Webster Bank building supervising the operation. He had passed command of the scene on after the second alarm was called.

The fire scene was in a temporary lull and some of the master water streams were shut down. At that point it was clear the building was a total loss and firefighters were in a defensive posture.

Gould said he noticed a group of fire personnel approached the area of the tap room.

"That was a dangerous area, it should've been a recognized collapse zone," Gould said.

The roof structure around the area had collapsed. Firefighters were probing into the building uses poles.

Gould said he went to the edge of the roof and yelled to the group to vacate the area, but his command was unrecognized. Eventually, one fire department member pointed to Egan, insinuating that he was in charge of the operation.

Gould then went over to the other side of the roof to tell Battalion Chief Matt Marcarelli, who was acting as the scene's safety officer, what was happening. Marcarelli then went around the building and told the group to clear the area and they did.

Egan gave a different version of events. He said he arrived to the fire scene about 30 minutes after the third alarm was called and took command.

"Overall communication of any potential collapse zone was ineffective because I wasn't made aware of it and there were people operating 2.5-inch lines within 15 feet of that (Whalley Avenue) side of the building," Egan said, adding that he was only made aware of the Webster Bank alleyway collapse area and that the firefighters were within 15 feet of the Whalley side when he first arrived.

"It would've been more effective to follow proper protocol if Chief Gould was aware of the danger," Egan said. "He should've notified me via department radio instead of yelling to me from an adjacent building's rooftop where I couldn't see him."

Gould said he called on the radio several times, but heard no response.

Egan also said Marcarelli designated the collapse zone while Egan and others were near the building and then they moved out. After that, no firefighters entered the zone.

Egan said he would accept any constructive criticism, but that other department members in command before and after Egan's arrival aren't immune to the same criticisms.

"It's counterproductive to discuss these issues in a newspaper," Egan said. "I think as a department we can review this incident and any other emergency incidents and look forward to see how we can better serve the city of New Haven."

Harp said in a statement the city's emergency management supervisors review each incident to learn from the experience.

"The city's response to the Delaney's fire will undergo that same internal review," she said. "We always hope that as a result of this process, any inadequacies will be identified and addressed, and again, that will be the case in the review of events regarding the Delaney's fire."

Also in a statement Harp said Neville has more than 20 years' experience with the department, "rising through the ranks while serving with Engine 6, Engine 4, and at Fire Headquarters," and was an adjunct instructor at the New Haven Fire Academy for two years. "This particular position has been vacant since the end of June -- I'm pleased we now have this experienced veteran of our department in this important command position."

The assistant chief of operations position will be tested for in the near future.

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(c)2014 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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