N.Y. fire department cited for drill team safety violations

A notice of violation said the fire department put team members at risk of falling from racing vehicles traveling at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour

Julie Abbass
Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.

LOWVILLE, N.Y. — If the Copenhagen Cubs drill team hadn’t already been stopped from racing a year ago by the village board, the fix to a “serious” safety violation found by the state Safety and Health Bureau would mean seats and seat belts for the boys instead of riders standing on the back of the speeding trucks.

According to a Notice of Violation and Order to Comply dated Nov. 6 sent to the Copenhagen Fire Department, “The employer failed to keep the workplace free from the hazard of falls from moving vehicles. During drill team training/activities employees stand on vehicles that travel at speeds up to 50-60 miles per hour.”

The practice, according to the violation document, “is recognized as a hazard by the National Fire Protection Association” because on the drill vehicle there is one seat with a seat belt for the driver instead of a seat and belt for each person on the vehicle as recommended by the association.

Standing or riding in “exposed positions” like on the tail or side steps or running boards is prohibited by the Association’s standards.

Local law has the same prohibition and although it excludes “firematic apparatus” from the rule, the violation documentation notes the statute “still recognizes the hazard of falls from vehicles.”

In addition to noting a 2017 shoulder injury at the Copenhagen department caused when a drill team member fell while standing on the moving firematics truck, causing the person to miss 172 days of work.

The document also cited a 2011 incident on Long Island in which all four Elmont Fire Department Drill Team members standing while riding on the back of a drill truck during a training session were injured, one seriously, when the vehicle hit a guard rail.

The Times was unable to verify if a violation was issued in that case, however, the safety bureau’s website says “accidents that send two or more public employees to the hospital” are automatic triggers for an investigation.

Investigations can also be initiated by “complaints from public employees or their representatives,” as was the case locally, or “deaths related to occupational safety and health.”

In October 2018, the village board voted to put a stop to the drill team’s firematics activities because of the $13,000 yearly workers’ compensation bill, due to go up in 2020 when the last two firematics-related injuries hit the system, bringing the total to three worker’s compensation cases from drill team injuries.

Copenhagen Fire Chief Jim Henry addressed the board to have drill team activities reinstated in September, suggesting the drill team could be removed from the village’s workers’ compensation insurance, however, the call for a motion to bring the team back was met with silence.

“I just figured it was a chance I had to take. I’m a 45-year member of the fire department and I’ve drilled for all of those years,” Chief Henry said.

Five members of the Henry family, including the chief, are firefighters and drill team members, one of whose knee was injured from drilling and is among the workers’ comp cases for the village.

In 1988, the chief’s brother, Donald R. Henry, was killed at the age of 36 after being thrown into a house’s stone foundation from the back of a firematics racing vehicle driven by their father, Robert S. Henry, during a practice run.

That same year in July, Robert Cushing, an 18-year-old drill team member in Patchogue, L.I., was also killed during a practice drill when he was thrown and crushed under the vehicle’s tire.

According to the president of the Copenhagen Fire Department, Patrick Mahar, the Copenhagen Cubs drill team can’t ever race again without permission from the village board. However, the club still exists in name so that club members that officiate can do so at firematics events around the state and the group can host other drill teams to come and compete.

The Copenhagen Cubs fund was rolled into that of the larger department in October and so any money spent would have to go through the department as a whole, Mr. Mahar said.

The safety bureau citation requires documentation that the drill team will not be racing any more for the violation to be properly addressed.

In the future, if any drill team members try to revive firematics racing, the violation states the vehicles used would have to “allow all employees to be seated and buckled while the vehicles are in motion, forbidding employees to stand on any vehicles while any vehicles are in motion,” which would change the dynamic of some of the races significantly.

It is unknown if the citation will have larger implications for firematics around the state.

Additional violations found during inspections made from June to September 2018 were:

— A firefighter who “was not wearing any protective clothing at an active fire scene” in March 2018, but should have been wearing a helmet, jacket and gloves “based on the employer’s assessment of the duties he performed at the scene;”

— Ladders and hoses stored along a wall of the station parallel to a fire truck that caused the aisle to be too narrow for safe passage and violated the 28-inch standard required;

— Electric panel boxes inaccessible because of equipment stored in front of them;

— Damaged insulation on an extension cord.

Mr. Mahar said all of those issues were addressed right after the report was received, by reorganizing the locations of equipment racks and spare equipment.

In the long term, he said the department is considering building a storage loft at the far end of the station to keep the main part of the station free from obstructions.

For each violation, the department was given a date by which they must prove they have addressed the issue.

Created in 1980, the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau of the state Department of Labor “enforces safety and health standards promulgated under the United States Occupational Safety and Health Act and several state standards,” according to the state website for the bureau.

A copy of the full citation issued is posted in the village office.


©2019 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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