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Coroner: NY firefighter, 21, died of natural causes after medical emergency during training

Watertown Firefighter Peyton Morse was found unresponsive while wearing his SCBA during a training exercise at the state fire academy


City firefighters in Watertown, N.Y. participate in DECON procedure training. Firefighter Peyton L.S. Morse died during a training exercise earlier this spring.

Photo/City of Watertown Fire Department

Craig Fox
Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — A Pennsylvania coroner’s office has determined that city firefighter Peyton L.S. Morse died of natural causes after he suffered a medical emergency while he was involved in a training exercise at the state fire academy in early March.

According to a news release Monday, the Bradford County Coroner’s Office determined the cause of death was an anoxic brain injury, cardiac arrest and consequence of physical exertion while using a Self Contained Breathing Apparatus — or SCBA — during training at the New York State Academy of Fire Science on March 3.

“The manner of death was determined to be the result of natural causes,” according to the news release.

Despite the medical examiner’s report, Fire Chief Matthew Timerman said Monday he still doesn’t know what happened since Mr. Morse was a young, healthy firefighter.

Chief Timerman also learned last week that national investigators concluded Mr. Morse’s air pack was “in good mechanical order.” If Mr. Morse was healthy and the breathing apparatus was working properly, the chief doesn’t know what happened at the fire academy that day.

“It definitely begs the question: What did happen?” Chief Timerman said, “and that’s what I need to find out.”

On March 3, the young firefighter was found unresponsive while wearing a breathing apparatus during a training exercise at the academy in Montour Falls, near Watkins Glen. Mr. Morse, 21, died nine days later in Robert Packer Hospital in Sayre, Pa.

The Bradford County Coroner’s Office assisted New York State Police with a medicolegal death investigation on the day he died. A pathologist in Binghamton conducted the actual autopsy.

Deputy Chief Coroner Timothy J. Cahill Jr., who wrote the report, said Monday he was unable to release additional information and “everything I could say is in the report.”

Chief Timerman called the NIOSH investigation into the air pack and the medical examiner’s office report “relevant information.”

“It leaves some hard unanswered questions,” he said.

The firefighter was inside a 20-foot-long tunnel made of plywood while wearing an air pack and a mask covered with tape when the incident occurred.

Mr. Morse was going through the tunnel that simulates what a firefighter would experience during a fire. Alarms on the self-contained breathing apparatus went off before the firefighter was found not breathing.

Several fire departments immediately pulled their recruits from the academy after hearing from their recruits how instructors handled training and the incident. Some instructors also were instructed to stop their involvement in the training, which continued until that session was completed weeks later.

Chief Timerman continues to call for an thorough investigation.

The fire chief has tried but been unable to get a copy of the autopsy report from the coroner’s office.

NIOSH is looking at how to prevent the incident involving the young recruit from happening again. NIOSH is a research agency that focuses on studying ways to create safe and healthy workplaces.

In April, NIOSH investigators were in Watertown for three days talking to members of the fire department and Mr. Morse’s family about what happened.

That investigation is going on at the same time that the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau, or PESH, and state police are investigating what happened during the incident at the fire academy.

Chief Timerman said he doesn’t know the status of those two investigations, although he has contacted them to notify them that the autopsy report is now completed.

The city also is conducting its own investigation into what caused the firefighter’s death. The city retained a private investigative firm, AMRIC Associates Ltd., Syracuse, to conduct the investigation into what happened.


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