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 Jet magazine 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.

Neither Stewart nor Sutter disagrees with the substantive parts of George's report. Firefighters make mistakes that result in accidents, they say, and that's understandable given that their jobs are dangerous and they have to work fast. And, citing department statistics showing that injuries have dropped by (from 312 in fiscal year 1999 to 224 in fiscal year 2001), they agree that the department has a good safety record.

Still to come is an internal report on a fire in May 2002 that killed two firefighters who got lost in a burning building. Whether that report will be released to the public is up to the mayor, George says. "It's not really for public consumption," the chief says. "It may not be written for the public to understand."

In a March report on the fatal fire, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health identified several problems. Firefighters didn't follow the buddy system. Maydays went unheard because of jammed radio channels. And the department didn't have a rescue team, commonly called a rapid-intervention team (RIT), standing by to pull out the stricken men. Simon says he expects the department's report to be more critical.

In a 1999 report on a near-fatal fire at the Council Towers apartment building in October 1998, NIOSH found some of the same problems identified in its March report and in the June 1 report by George, including firefighters who violated safety procedures. In the 1998 fire, a captain and a firefighter who accompanied him were trying to save someone on the 21st floor even though they were low on air and they hadn't notified anyone that they were attempting a rescue. The firefighter got out with no injuries, but the captain, who was found unconscious 13 minutes after he entered a smoke-filled hallway, suffered burned lungs and nearly died. Neither man activated a body alarm that shrieks when motionless for 30 seconds, NIOSH found, and incident commanders didn't follow procedures for keeping track of personnel. In addition, the department had no RIT program, and firefighters didn't follow the buddy system under which firefighters must maintain visual or voice contact inside burning buildings and leave and enter in teams of two.

In a letter to NIOSH, former chief Neil Svetanics rejected half of the ten recommendations the agency made after investigating the Council Towers fire, including a recommendation that the fire department put a RIT on standby before conditions become unsafe. Svetanics insisted his firefighters used the buddy system and said a RIT wouldn't have helped because the captain and the firefighter who accompanied him didn't tell anyone what they were doing or where they were going. NIOSH also recommended that the fire department keep a record of communications at fires to aid investigators if anyone got hurt or died, but Svetanics said keeping a record had no bearing on firefighter safety. The former chief also questioned whether placing a laser light at the entrance of burning buildings to help guide lost firefighters would improve safety, saying such lights could be left behind or confused with flashlights that firefighters use to signal each other.

George, who implemented a RIT program after last year's fatal fire, says a RIT program has always been a priority for him. "Immediately when I became chief, I began the formation of a rapid-intervention team," George says. "Some things happened that slowed the process up." He declined to elaborate on the delay. "I don't want to get into that," he says. Citing a clause in the state open-records law passed after the September 11 terrorist attack, the city's legal department would not release written protocols for the RIT program on the grounds that release of such documents would pose a security threat.

George bristles at any suggestion that he bears responsibility for breakdowns in safety procedures.

"What responsibility should I take?" the chief asks. "I'm not out there."