The fire that destroyed an historic commercial building in the heart of Westville has sparked a second conflagration—a dispute among department brass over whether some firefighters’ lives were improperly placed in jeopardy.
The dispute led ten members of the department’s command staff, following a Wednesday night meeting, to write a letter to Fire Chief Allyn Wright asking him to address “serious issues” raised by the handling of the Aug. 25 blaze at Delaney’s Restaurant and Tap Room at the corner of Whalley and Central Avenues. They asked him to turn control at fire scenes to senior command staff.
Based on the handling of the fire, “Chief [Allyn] Wright and Chief Egan should not take command of a Fire scene because neither has any experience or education to direct the work force at a fire. The public and Firefighters lives are at risk,” New Haven Firefighters Local 825 President Jimmy Kottage wrote Thursday in an email to the city’s chief administrative officer and labor relations director. “... I’m asking for your help before someone gets seriously hurt or killed.”
The episode was also the subject of a City Hall meeting Wednesday with Mayor Toni Harp and leaders of the black and firefighters associations, as well as Kottage. Based on that meeting, Harp said Thursday, she has asked her staff to investigate the handling of the fire.
“I’m looking into it,” Harp said. “It’s kind of serious from their perspective.”
The dispute centers on a moment during the fire when Assistant Chief Pat Egan ordered firefighters to walk up to part of the building after the roof had collapsed, and to reach through windows with poles to clear debris.
At the time, Battalion Chief William Gould was on the roof of the next-door Webster Bank directing some of the firefighters. He said that a call had already come over the department radio announcing that parts of the building had begun to collapse and thus declaring “collapse zones” along Whalley and Central Avenues.
Such zones are declared when a building has begun to collapse or appears about to collapse. It means firefighters are to come no closer than a distance equal to one and a half times the building’s height—in this case about 60 feet.
Gould said that he saw firefighters next to the building in violation of the zone.
“There were individuals operating right in the front wall—there was a total collapse of the roof structure,” Gould told the Independent Thursday. “I yelled down to whoever’s attention I could get, ‘Move away from the wall! Get away from the area!’ That’s where the tap room was.”
He said a firefighter looked up and pointed to Egan to signal that Egan had given the order. The firefighters did not comply with Gould’s order to get away.
Gould then walked to the other side of the roof to catch the attention of Battalion Chief Mark Marcarelli, who was the safety officer on scene. He described what was happening. Marcarelli walked over to where Egan and the firefighters were at the windows. He ordered them to leave, which they did.
Egan offered a different version Thursday. He told the Independent he didn’t realize that Gould was yelling at firefighters to back away from the spot.
“There’s a lot of yelling and things going on at a fire,” he said.
Egan also said he had not been informed of the declaration of a collapse zone on the Whalley Avenue side of the building.
“There was nothing I was made aware of,” he said, “except for the Webster [Bank] alley.”
He said he joined the firefighters in using 12-foot poles to try to poke through the windows to clear debris that had fallen inside the building and was blocking water streams from reaching flames.
“They were a few feet outside and using a pole,” he said.
Gould said that even if Egan hadn’t heard the order on the radio, “basic firefighting” training instructs members that once a collapse begins, firefighters need to back away. At the time Egan ordered the man up to the windows, Gould said, “there were obvious and evident signs—- sagging walls, cracked brick walls, out-of-whack windows, a full collapse of the roof.”
Kottage agreed: “The building already partially collapsed. Chief Egan put multiple fire crews in harm’s way, endangering the firefighters’ lives ... It [had become] a defensive fire. The building was going to be a total loss.”
“He showed up on the scene when master streams were being used. Any time you’re using major master streams, you automatically have to consider setting up a collapse zone. That’s 101,” said Darrell Brooks, vice-president of the Firebirds, the organization of black firefighters.
Brooks said some members told the organization “they thought they were going to die that night. There was no sense of command at that fire. You felt like your superiors who were giving you directives did not have a handle on it.”
The letter to Chief Wright was signed by Battalion Chiefs Ben Vargas, Gould, Luis Rivera, Thomas Neville, Gary Carbone, Marcarelli, Thomas Quinn, and Brian Jooss; as well as Kottage and Drillmaster Frank Ricci.
Chief Wright Thursday afternoon said he can’t comment yet on the controversy.
“I haven’t seen the letter,” he said. “I had a meeting with the mayor. I’m still in the process of looking into it.
“I’m not going into it until I conclude my investigation. The only one I’ve talked to is one chief, and I talked to Egan about an hour and a half ago. I haven’t had a chance to talk to everybody and read everybody’s reports.”
posted by: NewHavenFF on September 4, 2014 10:31pm
Obviously whoever you are…you didn’t actually read the article…the letter was from the ENTIRE command staff…all of your battalion chiefs, not just one, meaning they all shared the same opinion on the issue. And an administrative chief by job description is in charge of budgetary, personnel, and planning matters, nothing to do with operational issues, hence why he was given the promotion without serving in a leadership role on the fireground.
posted by: LDH on September 5, 2014 12:09am
Yes, the previous comment was right in regards to this fire was run no different then previous fires. Incident command, whats that? Haven’t had that in almost seventeen years on the job.That’s a fact.. Car 39 ,I’m on scene and charge isn’t Incident Command. Using a pike pole or handling the pipe at a well involved fire is not the Incident Commanders job, and that is text book. Just ask Alan Brunacini.The problem with the New haven Fire Department is there hasn’t been any officer development and valuable information was never passed down to the next generation of firefighters. The laundry list of problems go back to the outdated policies and procedures of the 1970’s.The fire service has progressed with the times and we are in a time warp. Firefighters expect leadership and vision from its chief officers.The New Haven Fire Department has suffered from the lack of leadership both financially and morally. The firefighters and the taxpayers deserve better. Sean P.
posted by: Peter99 on September 5, 2014 5:59am
As a command level fire officer you must have situational awareness of everything that is taking place on the fire ground. Your training coupled with years of experience as a firefighter holding line officer positions as you progress through the ranks is key to maintaining the safety of your men and putting out the fire. A very basic rule is master streams in and collapse imminent, you pull your men back into a safe defensive firefighting mode. A chief office does not pick up tools and stand next to a fire building, primarily because it is not his job and by doing so he can not see the big picture. Chief Egan was a firefighter who held the rank of private. He was the union president, and as such spent very little time actually working on the line companies in the fire station. The question that begs answering is; where did he get the training and experience to attempt to run a three alarm fire? The answer is he did not, and does not belong on the fire ground as anything other than a press relations officer. He is not trained and does not have the years of experience required to run a fire of this magnitude. His judgment is flawed if he personally thinks he is qualified, and that is scary. He should be stripped of any authority to give line commands at a fire scene before he gets someone killed or injured. Before you take command of a fire, you have to understand all of the things that taking command requires and demands. That building may have very well of burned to the ground with Chief Black or Chief Grant running the job, but it would not have been amateur night on Whalley Avenue. All fire ground personnel need to know who is in command and there should not be any confusion as to what orders are followed. There is no debate, nor is a consensus process followed when lives are at risk. A good chief takes command, exhibits command presence, give clear and distinct orders, uses his fire officers correctly and there is no confusion or ambiguity.
posted by: Rivertostate on September 5, 2014 8:04am
NHFDD4, I think you are missing the point of the letter from the line chiefs / union officers. The concern arises when you have the 2 highest ranking Chiefs in the department assuming command and making strategic / tactical decisions on the fireground when neither of them has the education or experience to be making those decisions.
Let’s face the facts here, Chief Wright has been removed from the fire service for over a decade and was never a company officer or a line chief. He has never supervised firefighters on the fireground let alone serve as the Incident Commander at a major incident.
The same can be said of Asst. Chief Egan who went from Firefighter (union prez) to Asst. Chief. He worked sparsely at best in the firehouse during his near decade as union president. He also has no fireground leadership experience, education or training.
What the line chiefs and union seem to be saying is they do not want them assuming command at a fire. You disagree with this? You are comfortable with these 2 overseeing operations at major incidents? I certainly would not be!
This is a major reason why the Asst. chief of ops is still a union position. It offers some type of accountability and prerequisites for the position. In other words the position can not be politicized like the chief / asst. chief of admin.
As far as bringing up Chief Goulds incident. Really?? We are going to resort to tit for tat and attempt to deflect from a HUGE issue? Are Incident Commanders going to make bad decisions? Yes, after all they are human. What about the hundreds of fires Chief Gould has operated at as a line officer and Incident Commander that went well? That’s the difference.. Chief Gould has years of command experience and training where Chiefs Wright and Egan have none.
It seems the line Chiefs, union, and Firebirds are all on the same page with this (that could be first)
posted by: Rivertostate on September 5, 2014 8:05am
They say a picture speaks a thousand words. The picture of Egan in this article does just that. Coat unbuttoned, no SCBA, no hood, operating in a collapse zone under a falling sign or soffet where there are 2 master streams flowing 200 Gallons a minute at 100 psi. To do what!?! Move some debris?? Moving all the debris in the world still would not have changed the outcome of that fire!! At this point in the incident the building was a loss and the only life safety hazard was that of the members operating.
Rule 1 LEAD BY EXAMPLE
Rule 2 KEEP YOUR FIREFIGHTERS SAFE
Both of these rules were completely disregarded by Asst Chief Egan at this fire.
posted by: Andy B on September 5, 2014 11:44pm
There have been very good fire chiefs in other departments who never or very rarely took over command of an incident that was already being run by subordinate command staff or line officers. There is still plenty to do just handling logistics. Working with utilities when they arrive. Establishing and managing staging areas for additional apparatus and companies. Setting up rehab. Dealing with the press. Communicating with PD, public works, ambulance companies, building department, mayors office, property owners, etc etc. These and many more plus requesting and listening to frequent incident updates from the incident command to maintain their own current knowledge of the situation. All the fireground and command experience in the world can never outshine the ability to know and understand all of your subordinate chief and line officers and be familiar with their abilities, strengths, and flaws. A good fire chief with a good corp of officers beneath him can potentially walk away from every fireground incident looking like the savior of all mankind without issuing a single command. I’m assuming that Chief Wright is very good at running the department. He’s just fortunate enough to have officers beneath him who outshine him.
posted by: member on September 7, 2014 10:41am
First to Chief Wright,
You are a great administrator whom has the pulse of the members of the department. Hearing your ideas to move this department forward was a breath of fresh air to many. But it’s time to start implementing them and doing the things you promised. Get in the firehouse, have dinner with us, pack hose at a fire scene and finally be our leader like you said you would. Now to Chief Egan, do for the members what you did as our union president and fight for us and the change of this department. I know you can because I’ve seen it, you’ve fought to help me personally. Believe it or not there are good ideas out in the firehouse. Please consider them. The members you previously fought to protect our the same members. Work with your officers, listen to them, consider they’re ideas. Sometimes a pat on the back goes further then a kick in the A**. The administration needs to have a monthly meeting with it’s officers. Hear our issues, see what’s going on in the firehouses. Let’s get this department at least into the 20th century (I’d be happy with just the 20th) it’s archaic most of what we do. We use enough paper to kill millions of trees. Our reports are done using MS-DOS, we still have to make our own maps of the streets, we have laptops in the apparatus that are essentially paper weights. Chief Wright, You have the pulse of your members, but I can tell you right now it can fade rapidly, and once you loose it, believe me all the CPR you do is not gonna get it back. And as I always do when I comment, I put my name to it. Because when I believe in something I’m never scared to sign it.
Lieutenant Gary W. Cole New Haven Department of Fire Service.
posted by: Think About It on September 7, 2014 3:29pm
To Elm City Lifer:
Egan corrected his statement after someone called him his claim that the NHI posted a photo of him from a different fire, and that he never had a pike pole. That post was apparently removed. The photo in question was taken at the Delaney’s fire. It was confirmed that the statement made to Rich Scinto was accurate, and not a misquote. If you have doubts, then I would suggest that you contact Rich Scinto for his side of the story if you are calling him out as incorrectly quoting Egan.
And additionally—well said “member”!