A new report from a federal agency found similar mistakes previously discovered with San Antonio Fire Department’s response to a 2017 shopping center fire.
The Ingram Square shopping center caught fire in May 2017, killing one firefighter and injuring two others. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) determined that seven factors contributed to firefighter Scott Deem’s death and the injuries of two others, according to a summary San Antonio Fire Department (SAFD) Chief Charles Hood gave the Rivard Report on Monday.
Deem died after getting lost in heavy smoke and heat in the fire, which fire department officials say was deliberately set inside the Spartan Box gym. He was the first San Antonio firefighter to fall in the line of duty since 1997.
The recommendations given by NIOSH paralleled those contained in the Texas Fire Marshal’s report issued in February, Hood said.
The NIOSH report, which will not be available online until later this week, outlined 18 recommendations for SAFD as well as for other fire departments around the country. Many of the recommendations were not a response to the Ingram Square fire, Hood explained, because the NIOSH report acts as an educational tool for fire department nationwide.
The seven factors that contributed to Deem’s death and the firefighters’ injuries the fact that there was no sprinkler system in the shopping center, the fire was arson, and the day was windy, according to SAFD’s summary of the NIOSH report. Deem and fellow firefighter Brad Phipps, who sustained serious burns, also did not have a hose line leading them outside, Hood said.
“There was no guarantee with that volume of fire we had they would have been able to get out,” he said. “But again, we want to make sure firefighters around the country know that a hose line will take you in and a hose line will get you out.”
NIOSH gave a few key recommendations, such as updating standard operating procedures, conducting live fire training, and revising tactics used at the scene of a fire. Hood said training and policies have been conducted and developed, and his department would undergo training on how to attack wind-driven fires next January.
The Fire Marshal’s report in February said that the firefighters approached the shopping center fire as they would a residential blaze, their first mistake. Deem and Phipps entered the gym despite seeing heavy black smoke when they opened the door, an indicator that it was unlikely anyone inside would be alive.
Hood said he brought the department’s risk management policy with him when he joined SAFD in 2007 from the Phoenix Fire Department, and that everyone has reviewed it again.
“We will risk a lot to save saveable lives,” Hood said. “We will risk a little to protect property. We’re not going to risk anything to save something that is already lost.”
SAFD already follows several of NIOSH’s recommendations as a matter of practice, Hood said. For example, every firefighter is equipped with a radio, and the department already has procedures to assess risk and decide how to address an event.
Hood praised his firefighters for continuing to do their jobs, especially those who worked the May 2017 fire. Those responders are scarred from losing someone they love, he said.
“It could have happened to anyone,” he said. “Unfortunately, good firefighters die. Good fire officers lose firefighters. Good fire chiefs lose members of their department. The pain will never be diminished from any of this, but as an organization, we have to forgive ourselves constantly.”
The department keeps in touch with Deem’s family, Hood said. His wife and three children, one of whom was born after Deem’s death, will be attending the International Firefighter Association memorial service for fallen officers in Colorado Springs on Saturday.
“They’re part of our family,” Hood said. ““We will continue to support and love them.”
Phipps will eventually return to the fire department and work in operations, Hood said.
Emond Javor Johnson, the owner of the gym where the fire started, has been indicted on five felony charges, including arson and murder.