Worcester chief stresses importance of firefighter safety

By Scott J. Croteau
The Telegram & Gazette

WORCESTER, Mass. — For years the fire services didn't want to change. But Fire Chief Gerard A. Dio believes there has to be progress to handle disasters; whether it is a warehouse fire or the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"The only thing we can be sure of is change," he said. "Things like our tragedy, what happened in Charleston (South Carolina), what happened in New York, we have to be an agent for effective change because change just for the sake of change is useless. But change for improving one's ability to perform the task you're asked to perform is good."

Everything that happens involving the fire services can be a learning experience, and experience can be a hard teacher, said the 55-year-old chief.

It can be easy to second-guess what happens during an incident, such as the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire. Would technology have helped? Could we have done this better? Those are all questions that arise, Chief Dio said.

"Could have all the technology in the world saved them? Who knows?" he said.

The need to save lives is ingrained in firefighters, Chief Dio said. The Dec. 3, 1999, warehouse fire made the department also think: What can we do to keep ourselves safe as well?

"We had to back up and say 'What about us?'" he said. "We have to keep safety in mind before we endanger ourselves."

Survival techniques implemented by the department have helped firefighters stay safe. Chief Dio said department members of all ranks looked at ideas aimed at keeping firefighters safe. If it was a good idea, Chief Dio listened.

"The men and women who are on the job, we have that understanding that it's not done overnight," he said.

"Has the department become better since the fire? We've moved in a direction that hopefully is improving it. As long as we move every day until I'm gone, that's fine."

Every member of the department working during the fire will carry memories of their fallen comrades' deaths, he said. It is still fresh in the chief's mind.

But every firefighter death, wherever it happens, carries a story. With that story comes the question: What could have been done to prevent this?

"That's Worcester's story," Chief Dio said. "What we did to try to prevent it from happening again."

Copyright 2009 Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Inc.
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