‘Still a Lot to Do’ After Firefighter’s Death: PHL Commish

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Philadelphia firefighter Joyce Craig’s “personal alert” device was at least 12 — maybe even 17 — years old.

Her breathing device included a “breathing hose” that also was 12 years old.

Both pieces of equipment, vital to a firefighter inside a structure fire, failed Craig in the moments before fellow firefighters pulled her from an early morning blaze in December 2014. She died a short time later at a nearby hospital.

One day after a national safety agency identified those equipment deficiencies and several other issues that need to be addressed, Philadelphia fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said Tuesday that his department has upgraded its equipment and is asking for more funding to increase training and on-scene communication.

“We’re really moving forward on all fronts,” Thiel said. “But there is a lot to do.”

The new report on Joyce’s death by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) includes 10 recommendations for the Philadelphia Fire Department that included enhanced training in firefighting and communication to upgraded equipment and better on-scene support.

“We’re not resting on our laurels,” Thiel said. “We are going to be looking a lot and focusing our attention on our mayday system. There were a series of factors on this.”

Lawyers for Craig’s family seized on the report’s findings that her aged equipment failed her in the midst of the house fire Dec. 9, 2014, in West Oak Lane.

“The fire fighter/EMT’s personal alert safety system (PASS) device was not heard and may have ceased to function intermittently from extreme heat exposure since it was a pre-2007 device,” the report said, which also noted “the department had not placed the new SCBAs (self-contained breathing apparatus) in service at the time of the fire and the fire fighter/EMT was using a SCBA with a 45-minute air cylinder conforming to the 2002 edition.”

The Craig family’s attorneys said in a statement that “this report appears to advance our arguments regarding the liability of the equipment manufacturer and affiliated defendants.”

The Philadelphia law firm Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Common Pleas court last December against some 30 manufacturers, claiming equipment failure led to the 37-year-old’s death.

According to the complaint, hosing on Lt. Craig’s SCBA equipment had ruptured, causing rapid air loss, and her Personal Alert Safety System (PASS) also failed to notify responders as to her location,” the firm said in a statement Tuesday.

Thiel said the SCBA equipment has already been upgraded across the entire department and new PASS equipment is available but needs more testing by outside agencies.

He said he doesn’t disagree with any of the NIOSH report’s recommendations, and that requests in the next budget for the department include adding personnel that will enhance training.

“To do the training we need to do, we need to dedicated training staff,” he said.

Four new training officers are in the proposed 2017-2018 budget as well as 30 new firefighters, which would help address on-scene response and communication, he said.

The department responds to 1,000 calls a day, including EMS runs, Thiel said. Those include an average of eight structure fires.

He said training and equipment can and should be continuously improved, but fighting fires will always be dangerous.

“You can’t see anything in a fire. This is not a television show. The visibility in a typical fire is zero,” Thiel said. “You literally cannot see your hand in front of your face. So the idea that one will maintain contact all the time inside of an active fire fight, it’s great, it’s really challenging to implement in practice. So it is not uncommon for crews to separate.”

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