The San Antonio Fire Department made key mistakes in its handling of a shopping center fire on May 2017 that took the life of firefighter Scott Deem, according to a report on the incident produced by the Texas Fire Marshal’s office with assistance from the Houston Fire Department.

The report states that Deem’s death and injuries sustained by two other firefighters “were preventable.”

Fire Chief Charles Hood on Thursday briefed reporters on the contents of the report, released in full on Friday. The fire, which left another firefighter severely burned, was ruled arson, and Emond Johnson, the owner of the gym where the blaze started, was charged with arson and murder.

Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood told the Rivard Report Friday the report “has no impact on the criminal case” against Johnson. Without the intentionally-set fire there would have been no death or injury, he said.

Miguel Najera, Johnson’s defense attorney, declined to comment for this story.

Emond Johnson.
Emond Johnson. Credit: Courtesy / Bexar County Jail

Hood said the report found that firefighters arriving at the blaze at the Ingram Square shopping center May 18 assessed and approached the fire as they would a residential fire, one of the first mistakes made. Further, Deem and fellow firefighter Brad Phipps entered the Spartan Box gym despite seeing heavy black smoke upon opening the door. This, the report said, indicated they were unlikely to find anyone alive inside the building.

Hood told reporters that cars parked outside the building prompted firefighters to begin searching.

“…[T]he doors were locked and the lights appeared to be off,” the report states, an example of a “no go” situation.

The two then entered the building without ropes or fire hoses to guide their way back to the entrance, the report found. Once inside, Phipps pulled down ceiling tiles, causing the flames to spread downward, Hood said, citing the report.

Phipps escaped the blaze with severe burns. Deem died at the scene.

“There were mistakes made,” Hood said. “If you die in a fire ground, chances are there was some action or inaction that happened to cause that death.”

The deadly incident and the resulting report spurred the fire department to change some of its procedures, Hood said, and other changes will be made throughout the year. Those include how firefighters assess fires, how they read smoke, and more training in risk assessment.

Each year, a fire department in the state of Texas helps conduct peer review reports for the state. The Houston Fire Department produced the report last year, and San Antonio will conduct one this year.

Hood said five firefighters across the state lost their lives last year. He stressed that mistakes happen when firefighters have just seconds to make decisions, and that the San Antonio Fire Department is still a model department.

“The biggest challenge is getting over this event,” Hood said. “The biggest challenge is recovering for us.”

Jeffrey Sullivan is a Rivard Report reporter. He graduated from Trinity University with a degree in Political Science.