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Scathing study faults procedures, firefighters

Thursday, July 08, 2004
Daily Southtown

A panel appointed to investigate last fall's fatal fire at the Cook County Administration Building recommended sweeping changes in Chicago Fire Department procedures and training, and called for retrofitting older buildings with sprinkler systems and modern stairway locking systems.

The commission, made up of retired judges and chaired by retired federal Judge Abner Mikva, blamed the deaths of six people in the fire on poor training, faulty communications and even the bad physical condition of firefighters at the scene. "It was apparent to us that certain individuals who were fighting the fire clearly did not know what they were doing," said commission member Sheila Murphy, a retired judge from the Beverly community.

That comment and the rest of the report are in stark contrast to the fire department's efforts to lay the blame for confusion at the fire and the resulting deaths on the building's managers and even on county workers themselves.

Fire Commissioner Cortez Trotter, who was named to head the department in April, said he has created a panel to analyze the commission's recommendations and determine how to put some of them into effect. He said the department already has implemented one of the recommended changes, requiring firefighters to take control of a building's public address system as soon as they arrive at the scene of a fire. Occupants of the administration building got incorrect instructions during the fire, the panel reported.

The report states that firefighters on the scene violated department policy by failing to set up search-and-rescue operations, focusing on putting out the blaze rather than rescuing people who were trapped.

The report also issues a scathing critique of the physical condition of some members of the department, suggesting some were incapable of performing their jobs and calling for a physical fitness training program with annual fitness tests to correct the situation.

The panel called for the installation of overhead sprinklers in high-rises, even those built before 1975, and said stairwells should have doors that remain unlocked or unlock automatically when there is a fire.

Questioning the qualifications of some individuals in the department, the commission called for new promotion policies mandating "competitive examinations" for every job in the department except those immediately below the commissioner. Promotion policies have long come under fire by members of the department who claim promotions favor white employees connected to the "old boy network," or that they favor minority workers because of affirmative action policies that consider race rather than qualificaitons.

The report finds fault with a wide range of the department structures, procedures and personnel, and it is difficult to quarrel with its conclusions. How can firefighting personnel not be aware that their first priority is to save lives rather than protecting property? How can training be so lax that personnel reporting to fight a fire don't know the department protocol? These are outrageous training oversights.

If individuals are being promoted without regard to their qualifications, or are not required to stay in a physical condition adequate to perform the tasks that are required of them, the department is putting not just fire department members but everyone who works or lives in Chicago at risk of grave injury or death.

The city council and fire department administrators need to move swiftly to evaluate the recommendations and put them in place as soon as possible.

 

 



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