The Deutsche Bank Fire and J’accuse? Not So Fast.

Yesterday’s blog post at IAFF online by Rich Duffy trumpets a “must read” article in a “prestigious, professional online magazine” by author John Steadman concerning the fatal fire at the former Deutsche Bank building which was under demolition at the time of the incident.

First, employing “J’accuse”, a reference to the 19th century Dreyfuss affair in France is at least odd.  Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a low-level artillery officer, was wrongly convicted of treason on trumped up charges.  He was not a commander or senior officer in the French military establishment and using him as a surrogate in the Deutsche Bank affair is singularly inapt.  Dreyfus was not only completely innocent, he was framed.

Mr. Steadman’s breathless prose has much chaff but it also has its share of wheat.  He correctly points out the infuriating bureaucratic bumbling in various city agencies (including FDNY) which set the stage for the fire.  He also documents that FDNY staff had much of the information they needed to protect fire companies but it never made its way to the troops.

But both Mr. Duffy and Mr. Steadman can be excused for missing a central point  because neither are firefighters:  serious fires typically occur in buildings with serious problems.  How many times have firefighters ridden past a structure only to comment to each other, “That’s going to be a bear when it goes up.”  Such a statement, uttered daily by firefighters belies the truth that we usually know which buildings in our districts are likely to pose the biggest danger.  Was Deutsche Bank a magic exception for company officers, battalion and district commanders?  Maybe, but probably not.  In fact, falling debris from the Deutsche Bank had previously damaged Engine/Ladder 10 in a not so subtle reminder of the danger lurking close by.

It’s not simplistic to say that on a fundamental level firefighting is a deadly “game”.  Watch those training films, drill non-stop, and practice key plays, but on game day, surprises may await you.  Senior firefighters, company officers and their commanders witness but often fail to internalize that it seldom goes the way we think it should.

The Deutsche Bank fire ground was mayhem:

–  Firefighters were committed to extremely exposed and dangerous positions in an abandoned building under active demolition.

–  It took over 80 minutes to obtain a reliable water supply.

–  Desperate calls for help went unheard and unanswered.

–  Fire crews split up losing accountability and control.

Company officers and commanders allowed these events to unfold and any writing about the fire that fails to state these facts is neither a “must read” nor “professional.”

The Steadman article references “stop work” orders issued in at least one case by inspectors after a torch incident.  Another stop-work order should have been issued by the incident commander the day of the fire as the losing proposition became glaringly apparent.

Finally, revisionist writing touted as safety literature is both confusing and potentially deadly.



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