The Kansas City Star, in a months-long investigation, found widespread problems in U.S. fire-fighting. In tragedy after tragedy, firefighters paid the price when fire departments didn’t learn from others’ mistakes. “We are sadly unoriginal,” said Kevin Kalmus, a fire captain in Austin, Tx. “We allow the same events to occur year after year that lead to firefighter fatalities.” “You see the same things over and over again,” said Tim Merinar, who heads a federal team in West Virginia that has investigated firefighter deaths since the late 1990s.
Lapses occurred, fire investigators and safety experts say, despite many science-based safety recommendations that have been circulated to the thousands of fire departments. No single explanation accounts for why best practices are often not followed.
A perplexed U.S. Congress authorized a $1.2 million study in 2012 to find an answer, but neglected to provide the money to see it through. Scores of firefighter fatality reports reviewed by The Star suggest some answers: no national training requirements; complacency within some departments; little regulatory oversight; budget constraints that leave fire departments shorthanded; and poor judgment on the fireground.
The newspaper gives many examples of avoidable deaths. In one, Kansas City firefighters John Mesh and Larry Leggio were killed last year when a wall fell on them in an alley that the fire department said should have been evacuated because it had been declared unsafe.