'Disappointed': N.Y. chief, parents critical of investigation into death of FF Peyton Morse

The New York State Academy of Fire Science is "off the hook," but Watertown Fire Chief Matthew R. Timerman has many questions


Craig Fox
Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — Watertown Fire Chief Matthew R. Timerman can't understand why instructors had no idea that city firefighter Peyton L.S. Morse used six air cylinders of his breathing apparatus before having a medical emergency at the state fire academy in March.

Timerman expressed those concerns when he talked to Public Employee Safety and Health investigators who investigated the young firefighter's death.

Peyton L.S. Morse, 21, had a medical emergency during a training exercise at the fire academy in Montour Falls on March 3. He died in a Pennsylvania hospital nine days later.
Peyton L.S. Morse, 21, had a medical emergency during a training exercise at the fire academy in Montour Falls on March 3. He died in a Pennsylvania hospital nine days later. (Photo/Morse Family)

It's one of the many lingering questions that Timerman has — now that a 26-page PESH report has been completed, determining the New York State Academy of Fire Science is off the hook in Mr. Morse's death.

"There was no surprise there, but I'm disappointed," Timerman said. "We hoped that it would have come out differently."

Mr. Morse, 21, had a medical emergency during a training exercise at the fire academy in Montour Falls on March 3. He died in a Pennsylvania hospital nine days later.

Timerman and Mr. Morse's parents, David M. and Stacy L. Morse, have been critical of the way the academy handled his training and how PESH investigated his death. They believe his death could have been prevented.

In a prepared statement, Mr. Morse's family said they were not surprised by the findings of the PESH report but expressed disappointment.

"We find it incomplete and highly biased," they said.

The investigation includes conflicting statements and interviews from witnesses who attended the training that day.

A month after Mr. Morse's death, PESH investigators conducted in-person interviews with nine unidentified fire recruits in the firefighter's battalion and another 11 recruits by phone about the incident.

But it wasn't until six months after it happened that four state fire academy instructors answered questions. According to the report, they initially declined to be interviewed and had to be subpoenaed by PESH before they would talk to investigators.

The four instructors interviewed were Scott DeNinno, Chris Rea, Warren "Terry" Ward and Bruce Heberer.

On the day of the incident, Mr. Morse was using a Self Contained Breathing Apparatus, or SCBA, during training inside the fire academy's gymnasium. It was during his third week of training, known as "hell week."

Fire department officials across the state have become increasingly concerned about the training recruits receive at the academy, with some describing it as an atmosphere of a college fraternity. There's also been complaints of a series of recruit injuries in recent years.

Morse — who had volunteered for the LaFargeville Fire Department for seven years and served as an assistant chief — was the last recruit in his battalion going through his final exercise of the day when the emergency happened, according to the report. Recruits had already gone through a series of obstacle stations in the gym.

At about 1:30 p.m. that afternoon, Morse was going through a plywood tunnel — called the "box" — that simulates what a firefighter would experience during a fire.

He was inside the tunnel, 2 1/2 -feet wide and 21 feet in length, while wearing an air pack and a mask covered with tape when the incident occurred.

The top of the box was open so that instructors could watch as recruits tried to manage a series of obstacles inside, the report says.

Several recruits told investigators that they noticed Morse "was struggling through the drills earlier in the day," telling them that he "appeared to be exhausted and emotional."

Several recruits checked on him during the day and he told them "I don't want to do this" but continued "I just need to get through the day." He also told them that he had vomited between the morning and afternoon training sessions, according to the report.

Instructors said they did not notice that Morse was not feeling well and recruits did not tell them. Recruits do not typically inform instructors about situations like that because they don't want to bring attention to themselves that could jeopardize their completion of the 11-week training.

Some recruits had a clear vision of Morse while he was inside the box, while others were not focusing on him, the report says.

Inside the obstacle, the report indicates, Morse struggled as instructors gave him verbal help through the open top of the box.

While inside the box, Morse's low-air alarm went off, and it was later determined that it meant 20% was remaining in the air cylinder.

Some recruits heard the alarms going off, while one did not.

Three recruits heard Morse say "I can't breathe," and heard him "grunting" and making other noises that "implied he was physically exerting himself," the report says.

One recruit said he saw Morse sit up inside the box, take his SCBA mask off and say "I can't breathe." The recruit said he heard an instructor reply, "If you can talk, you can breathe," according to the report. The other recruits said they did not see that happen.

When he was near the end of the tunnel, Morse's Personal Alert Safety System on the air-pack went off, which was caused by his lack of movement. Instructors saw Morse "squirm" and an unidentified instructor reset the personal alarm, according to the report.

With his lack of movement, instructors reached into the box and physically pulled and guided him through a "V-shaped" obstacle near the end of the box, the report says.

Morse proceeded through the box under his own power. He was then found — with the upper half of his body outside of the box — motionless, according to the report. Instructors got him fully out of the box and tried to resuscitate him for several minutes. Staff had to retrieve an automated external defibrillator, or AED.

Without an ambulance at the site, Morse was put inside a fire academy van that took him to Schuyler Hospital in Elmira. He was then flown by helicopter to a hospital in Sayre, Pa., where he was placed in an induced coma. He died nine days later, on March 12.

PESH determined that the academy did not violate any occupational safety and health standards, although the academy failed to follow its own written rehabilitation process for members during operations and training.

An autopsy conducted by a Pennsylvania coroner's office determined the cause of death as anoxic brain injury, cardiac arrest and consequences of physical exertion, although no anatomical or genetic causes for the cardiac arrest were found.

Recruits indicated that they were intimidated into not reporting illnesses and injuries. Vital signs of recruits were not taken during the training.

Morse's parents have insisted that he was in excellent health. The breathing apparatus was inspected and found to be in good working order, Timerman stressed.

The chief believes that the academy didn't provide a safe work environment, adding that instructors didn't do enough to ensure Morse's well-being.

"There were red flags," he said. "Either they missed something or weren't looking for it."

As for the situation with the number of air-pack cylinders, Timerman said instructors did not track that Morse used six that day before the incident. According to the report. PESH found no regulations on how many cylinders can be used in a day.

Timerman said it becomes a concern when a city firefighter uses two at a Watertown fire scene because of the health risks.

He said that the air-pack was tested before it went to the fire academy, and after the incident. It was working properly.

PESH is a state agency that gives occupational safety and health protection to public sector employees and investigates on-the-job injuries and deaths when it involves a public worker.

Timerman reiterated that PESH did not want to conduct the investigation to begin with; it was only after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration intervened that PESH decided to do it.

"You can't tell me that environment is safe," he said, adding that he asked PESH questions "and didn't receive any answers, just silence."

Pressed for a response Wednesday, the state Department of Labor referred to a previous statement that was provided to media outlets in November.

"After a thorough investigation, no violations were issued by the New York State Department of Labor to the New York State Fire Academy in Montour Falls or the City of Watertown in connection to the death of Peyton Morse," it reads.

In a separate investigation, PESH issued two minor citations against the Watertown Fire Department regarding paperwork for items not related to what happened to Morse. Both violations have been corrected.

But Timerman questioned the veracity of the two reports. The report that included the two citations against the fire department seemed to be much more thorough than the report investigating Morse's death.

Some basic facts were incorrect in the fire department report. It stated investigators started the fatal investigation on March 4, when Morse died on March 10, so it could have not started that early.

It also said a PESH official called the fire chief indicating that the investigation was beginning, but the chief called PESH about the incident.

The PESH report in Morse's death also took what instructors said "as fact," whereas statements by him, recruits and other non-academy staff were treated with less weight as if they were opinions, Timerman said.

State police is also investigating. The Violent Crimes Unit with Troop E, based in Canandaigua, has been assigned to investigate Morse's death. The unit investigates assaults, homicides and other serious crimes.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, is conducting a separate investigation to determine how to prevent similar situations in the future.

Timerman and Morse's parents want to make sure that the atmosphere at the fire academy changes. They also would like to see other changes made at the academy.

"We pray that they see the light, do what is right, and take responsibility and make changes necessary to ensure this never happens again," the Morse family said in a statement.

The family also thanked the community for its support.

"Peyton supported his communities and now they are supporting us," the family wrote. "We couldn't do this alone."

The city is preparing a lawsuit against the state that will involve monetary expenses incurred by the city as the result of Morse's death.

City Attorney Robert J. Slye said earlier this week that the PESH report will have no bearing on the city's lawsuit.

The Morse family is also expected to file a lawsuit.

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(c)2021 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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