Worcester leaders detail improvements ahead of review
City and fire officials detailed the changes and investments already made in the wake of nine firefighter deaths over the last 20 years
Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.
WORCESTER, Mass. — When Fire Chief Michael J. Lavoie stepped to the City Council lectern Tuesday to recommend an outside review and accreditation for the fire department, he made it clear that his department has his full confidence.
"Don't get me wrong: I have 100% faith in our firefighters," he said, acknowledging that public perception immediately after the November death of Lt. Jason Menard, the department's second line-of-duty death in a year, was concerning to him as fire chief.
"The perception out there was, 'What is the Worcester Fire Department doing?' " he said – a question that was particularly painful given that the department was weeks away from commemorating the 20 years that have passed since six firefighters perished in the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire.
The city has now lost nine firefighters to four fires in the past two decades. The sight of thousands of solemn firefighters gathering to the sound of droning bagpipes has become too familiar an occurrence in New England's second-largest city – a heart-wrenching experience leaders here say they've been working continuously to avoid.
In interviews this week, Chief Lavoie and City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. stressed that although the city's most recent announcement is its most ambitious – accreditation could take five years – leaders have taken, and are continuing to take, steps after each tragedy to improve firefighter safety.
The two detailed millions of dollars in equipment and software upgrades in the works – upgrades that will give each firefighter a built-in thermal imager and, hopefully, lead to firefighters getting more information about the buildings into which they are racing.
Augustus promised the public a transparent review process and a report that will not be "whitewashed," saying he is open to anything and everything that fire experts deem necessary to improve firefighter safety.
Separately, Augustus told the Telegram & Gazette this week he would direct staff to work with the newspaper to fulfill a public records request it filed in November seeking records pertaining to the two fatal fires preceding the death of Lt. Menard – fires that claimed the lives of firefighter Jon D. Davies Sr. in 2011 and Christopher J. Roy in 2018.
The city declined a request for "any and all investigatory reports" into both fires in November, saying the 2011 blaze, in addition to the 2018 fire, is still under investigation by police. The T&G amended its request Friday to request reports of any kind relating to the fires.
A lofty goal
The steps the city is taking after Lt. Menard's death will lead it toward accreditation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence, a difficult process that is not commonly undertaken.
According to the center's website, only 11% of the U.S. population is protected by an accredited agency, and only one agency in Massachusetts, the Westover Air Force Reserve Base Fire Department in Chicopee, has earned accreditation.
Chief Lavoie said the process will not be easy. But he's confident that accreditation, along with the study, will show the world how professional Worcester's firefighters already are, while at the same time leading to improvements.
"That's one of the main reasons why I wanted to hire a consultant to look at what we're doing," Chief Lavoie said Thursday. "To allay the fears of others, that yes, we know what we're doing."
Over the course of more than an hour, Lavoie and two of his senior colleagues detailed efforts they say they have made in the past decade to improve the odds of quickly and safely extinguishing fires.
They also said that, amidst all the loss, it can be easy to overlook all the times that went right.
"We pulled 11 people out of windows in 2019," Deputy Chief Martin W. Dyer said. "As all these things are going on, we're rescuing people every day."
Learning from tragedy
In three of the four firefighter-fatal fires since 1999, the department was engaged in its highest, most dangerous calling – trying to save persons reported as being inside a burning building.
Menard died after saving another firefighter who had become trapped during a search for people reported to be inside.
In 2011, Davies died while looking for someone inside a three-decker at 49 Arlington St. that was both deteriorating and had an unusual beam support system, leading the structure to collapse in an unexpected way.
A 2012 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health noted the building had been cited by inspectors in the past as having cracks and deteriorations on exterior brick walls. The report recommended the city work to make information about hazardous buildings "part of the information contained in computerized automatic dispatch systems."
Lavoie said Thursday that firefighters, after the 2011 blaze, went around the city examining three-deckers and other structures from the outside, and reporting signs of decay to the Division of Inspectional Services.
Part of the challenge, he said, is that the fire department can't just go around ordering people to show them their foundations – they are only allowed to go inside rooming houses, businesses and four-or-more-family dwellings, and even then there are restrictions.
That means intelligence on possibly failing residences often only comes when firefighters are called to a location for service. Dyer said the department trains its staff to always be on the lookout for hazardous conditions, and to either help a resident fix an immediate problem, like a dead smoke detector or debris-filled hallway, or, in cases of structural concern, alert Inspectional Services.
Dyer said the department has worked hard to get information about buildings available for automated review. Pulling out his tablet, he showed how software the department uses, called Public Eye, allows him to call up building information, including some inspectional information, on a location with a few clicks.
The level of information displayed is different depending on the property. Schools, for example, include floor plans, while businesses with hazardous chemicals include readouts of what is stored.
Dyer said since different city departments collect different data in different systems, it is challenging to have all the information in the city's possession on a given property available in one place. He said the current system is not as detailed as firefighters would like, but said the department is hopeful that a new computer-aided dispatch system in the works will offer improvement.
Augustus said he has committed more than $3 million to the CAD system, which will also serve police, and is specifically looking for vendors who can provide firefighters with the most intelligence.
Augustus will also hire a consultant to look at the Division of Inspectional Services.
New breathing apparatus planned
Augustus and Lavoie said the department will also be purchasing new self-contained breathing apparatus for all firefighters – a $1.2 million investment.
"Every firefighter is now going to have a thermal imager," Lavoie said, explaining that the devices will be built into the breathing apparatus, which will also be more comfortable.
Lavoie called the purchase a "huge step" for the department that will help keep firefighters safer. The funding was not included in this year's budget, but Augustus agreed to buy them and is working to reconfigure his budget to accommodate it.
"We're not going to wait for the report from the consultant to come out to do things that we feel need to be done now," Lavoie said.
After the fire that claimed the life of Roy, the department added three safety captains whose focus is firefighter safety, Lavoie said, and has also been generally striking a second alarm as a default for most structure fires.
"I know for a fact that one of those safety captains saved a life on Stockholm Street," Lavoie said, adding that he couldn't offer further details at this time.
Lavoie said the department, recognizing that all its deaths since 2011 have taken place in balloon-framed buildings in cold-weather months, is also trying to work with Worcester Polytechnic Institute to determine how cold may affect those structures.
Lavoie was thankful of the resources Augustus has given his department since becoming manager in 2014. According to Augustus' office, the fire budget has gone up 21% in that time, while the average age of fire apparatus has been reduced by four years.
The manager, in response to concerns about firefighter health, has also gotten all firefighters a second set of turnout gear. The department, with help from AT&T and the Leary Firefighters Foundation, also provides "02X" human performance training, a training and health curriculum developed by former Navy SEALs.
More information coming
Both the fire department and the public will learn more about the last two firefighter deaths in Worcester when the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health releases exhaustive reports.
A spokeswoman for NIOSH said the report on the 7 Lowell St. fire in which Roy was killed is expected to be completed this summer. The investigation into Menard's death at 7 Stockholm St. is ongoing.
Authorities allege the 7 Lowell St. fire was intentionally set by a West Boylston man who was intent on getting revenge on former roommates. Augustus said Thursday that investigatory reports are being withheld in that fire at the request of prosecutors.
With respect to the 2011 fire at Arlington Street in which Davies died, Augustus said that fire also is still under investigation. He and Lavoie declined to provide further information on that inquiry.
The NIOSH report from 2012 notes that the blaze started in the building's first-floor rear stairwell "due to undetermined causes." The building was burning heavily before nearby EMTs noticed and called firefighters.
Police spokesman Lt. Sean Murtha said the investigation into the fire is still open. He said he could not comment on any suspects or leads, but noted the department is "always willing to accept information from the public that could help solve the case."
According to the city's response to the records request, 13 pages of investigative reports are being withheld for the 2011 fire, all of which were created in 2011.
The city said it is withholding 54 pages of investigative records from the 2018 Stockholm Street fire.
Asked what changes could be in store for the fire department, Augustus and Lavoie said they'd like to avoid thumbing the scale prior to the study being conducted.
Michael Papagni, president of the Local 1009 Worcester Firefighters union, said in an interview that his organization supports the review.
Papagni agreed with city officials that the review is needed more as a way of identifying improvements than correcting deficiencies.
Modern fires burn much more quickly than the fires of old, fueled by plastics and other man-made items that can release quick-killing chemicals like cyanide.
Accordingly, NIOSH noted in its 2011 report that fire commanders are encouraged to soberly consider whether a person might still be alive when determining whether to conduct dangerous secondary searches.
Papagni said he expects the review will show where Worcester stands in relation to national standards in all areas, including manpower.
"We have always – it's no secret – looked for manpower," he said, complimenting Chief Lavoie for ending a former practice of browning out certain companies.
The city has 409 approved firefighting positions, Lavoie said - about 60 fewer than it did in 1999. A commonly cited problem among firefighters nationwide is that staffing has decreased as there have been fewer fires, but that the fires that do erupt are more dangerous.
In Worcester, the discussion surrounding manpower is likely to center not only on firefighter safety but also on the fact that the city has been redeveloping at a brisk pace, and will soon be home to a Triple-A ball club and corollary development.
Papagni said he hopes the report is the start of meaningful improvements for both firefighters and city residents. He said while firefighters know the service they provide is top-notch, they also believe the loss of another single firefighter is unacceptable.
That was the sentiment expressed by Kathy Spencer, widow of Worcester 6 Firefighter Lt. Thomas Spencer, in a Nov. 21 letter to the T&G in which she called for introspection and change in the department.
Augustus announced the idea of a task force – the precursor to this week's announcement – the day the letter was published.
Asked about the letter, Papagni said Spencer "certainly opened some eyes and ears.
"We support her courage in speaking out," he said.
©2020 Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.