Under Fire

Chief Sherman George lights a fire, but who feels the heat?

Walls along the staircase leading to the St. Louis fire chief's second-floor office are lined with portraits of Sherman George's predecessors. The pictures are mostly in black and white, but they're certainly more white than black.

Some look Irish and some look German, but none look like George, the city's first African-American fire chief. And George is obviously proud to be first. Articles from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Jetmagazine announcing his 1999 appointment as chief are mounted in the lobby of his office, complete with pictures of a beaming George taking the reins of a department for which he's worked for more than 30 years. When he was appointed, the chief said he would work on narrowing racial gaps in the fire department, but he wouldn't be able to close them. That's certainly proved true, and any honeymoon is long over.

The chief this month released a report on four fires that resulted in 13 injuries in the span of three weeks in January and February. The contents of the report ordered by Mayor Francis Slay surprised no one: Firefighters screwed up by not following safety rules, and their commanders goofed by not adequately assessing danger before sending their charges into harm's way. Recommendations in George's report also aren't surprising: Increase safety training and review the department's standard operating procedures to make sure the mistakes aren't repeated.

On paper, the mistakes look stupid. Firefighters were trapped in a burning building because they didn't put ladders up to allow them to escape through windows. Firefighters failed to wear protective hoods. A trapped firefighter jumped from a window and landed on -- and injured -- a battalion chief who was telling him to stay put until a ladder arrived. Everyone who was injured is a department veteran with more than five years of experience, and George says he doesn't know why firefighters and officers who should know better made so many mistakes. There won't be any discipline this time for employees who didn't follow safety procedures, but future mistakes might bring consequences, George says, including reductions in employee performance ratings and terminations.

Public Safety Director Sam Simon's reaction to George's report is hardly enthusiastic. "I felt it was an attempt by the chief and his staff to be as objective as they could about their own people," says Simon, who is George's boss. Is that objective enough? "We're continuing to assess that," answers Simon, who says nothing in the report surprised him. "This isn't like a one-time report and then we stop and say, 'OK, that solved everything.' This is a work in progress." There may be more reviews and reports, Simon says, although he hasn't decided exactly what is needed. "I haven't talked to the chief substantively about that," he says.

Even before the mayor announced the investigation, George ordered firefighters to make written statements before leaving the accident scenes, and the chief based his report on those written statements. Dan Sutter, president of Local 73 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents mostly white department members, faults the chief for not interviewing firefighters. Simon says Sutter may have a point. "I think there's always room, at this point, to keep exploring it," Simons says. "If all the people who were involved or all the people who had something to offer were not either interviewed or asked to write something, that's the more prevalent issue for me."

For months, George, whom the mayor didn't consult before announcing the investigation, has privately fretted about whether his job is in jeopardy. "His job is safe today," Simon says. "I think he's doing the best job he can do. He's got a tough job. I wouldn't put a grade on it." For his part, George is terse when asked about job security. "I get along fine with the mayor and Sam Simon," he says, without elaborating. With two firefighters dying in a fire last year, George says he doesn't know if a third strike will be his last. "You'd probably have to ask the mayor that question," he says.

Reactions to the report among the rank-and-file fall along racial lines. Sutter says he agrees with the report's recommendations, but he still faults the chief. "Now, the recommendations aren't bad, but a lot of these recommendations are things we had made recommendations for long before the injuries occurred," Sutter says. Asked to cite an example, Sutter says he couldn't recall any. George says Sutter and other critics never brought such recommendations to his attention in advance of the report. "If I'm sitting here, they won't say that because it's not true," George says. "I ask questions all the time. Why did a person get fluid in their eyes? You can ask Dan Sutter about fluid in his eye." The chief declined to say anything more about fluid in the union president's eyes.

Captain Addington Stewart, president of the Firefighters Institute for Racial Equality, to which most black firefighters belong, says he hasn't read the report and that he trusts the chief. Criticism from Local 73 members is ridiculous, he says. "They're a bunch of idiots," Stewart says. He praises the chief for ordering firefighters to write down what they did before leaving the accident scenes and relying on those written accounts to reach conclusions. "When you let the guys get back to the engine house, their stories all start to sound the same," Stewart says.

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