National experts weigh in on fatal Kensington warehouse fire during City Council hearing

Former Philadelphia fire Commissioner Roger Ulshafer, who is now a consultant with the International Fire Service Training Association, at a City Council committee hearing today criticized fire department leadership in the deaths of firefighters Lt. Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney, killed battling a Kensington warehouse blaze in April. “When you’re in command of a large event, there’s a risk-benefit ratio,” Ulshafer said. “Here, the risk was everything and there were no benefits, so they should never have been ordered into the building.”

Roger Ulshafer

The hearing was called to assess fire department policies and procedures and recommend improvements. Participants called for increased communication with the Department of Licenses and Inspections in identifying hazardous buildings, as well as ongoing officer training. “Training is key and this has been a problem for us since station closings, then brownouts and everything else,” said firefighters union Local 22 sergeant-at-arms Jack Eltman. “We can only send so many people at a time to training. We have people out there losing their EMS certifications.”

Jack Eltman, with recording secretary Mike Bresnan.

Also at issue were outdated methods of accounting for onsite personnel. Former FDNY deputy fire chief Vincent Dunn, now a consultant with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said that the FDNY’s roll call system resembles an iPad, but Philadelphia’s involves pinning slips of paper to a board. “As far as that command board is concerned, that’s prehistoric,” he said.

Vincent Dunn

Both officials with firefighters union Local 22 and the two experts continued to contend that a collapse zone was never established that night. “Not too many weeks ago, Commissioner [Lloyd] Ayers privately admitted that, ‘we messed up’ when asked what happened,” Ulshafer said. “And by ‘we,’ I assume that’s his two deputy commissioners and this is from an unimpeachable source. That’s serious.”

Members of Local 22 came out to show support.

Deputy Mayor Mike Resnick, appearing on behalf of the administration, criticized Ulshafer for making the allegation. “We feel it’s irresponsible to make those type of statements in public when a grand jury is impaneled,” he said. He said he could not discuss details of fire department protocols due to the ongoing investigations into the Kensington fire by the District Attorney’s Office and NIOSH.

Councilman Jim Kenney, center.

Though officials with the fire department and L&I were invited to the hearing, they declined to attend or provide any information requested, prompting frustration from Councilman Jim Kenney. “We wanted to have a conversation outside of this incident about what can do to improve safety training,” he said. “But they just said, ‘No, we’re not coming.’ It’s hard to get answers to things when nobody shows up.”

Fire department officials, including Ayers, attended Council’s morning session designating this week “National Fire Prevention Week.”

The father of Daniel Sweeney, one of the two firefighters killed in


Protecting our protectors

Recommendations of those who testified include:

– Safety officer training should be held on a regular basis — the last session was in 2007 – and the city should look into incentivizing and compensating firefighters for taking classes or obtaining a degree at area colleges.

– Firefighters should be equipped with GPS tracking systems so that their location is easily accessible, rather than relying on a roll call board on which is posted accountability slips stating who is on the scene and where they are.
“On the night of that fire, no roll call accountability slips were
collected,” Eltman said. “And if firefighter Cheney were to have been completely buried, nobody
would have known who was missing.”

Councilmembers review a handout of a slideshow shown by Local


– The fire department should play a more active role in identifying buildings that are not up to fire code standards, which is currently exclusively the responsibility of the Department of Licenses and Inspections. Those building locations, plus proactively-determined strategies to fight fires at those properties in the case that they do ignite, should be entered into the dispatch database and given to companies if they are called to an incident at one of those addresses.

– Collapse danger zones should be demarcated not by rope or tape, as is currently the practice, but by wooden police-type barricades and a fire officer should be posted at each access point to enforce the zone. “In this case, we never found that a collapse zone was ever put in place,” Ulshafer said. “We looked at photographs, we looked at video. Their operational procedure calls for tape and rope. I’ve never seen tape be effective at all and the
ropes are not so hot.”

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