A number of systematic failures were cited in the line-of-duty death of a Maryland firefighter last year.
That was the conclusion of a panel of fire officials who conducted a review of the Aug. 11, 2021 fire that claimed the life of Frederick County Battalion Chief Joshua Laird.
A lightning strike caused the blaze in the 5,375-square-foot house on Ball Road. The investigation also showed the fire had burned for some time before it was noticed and reported.
Laird fell through the floor into the basement, and attempted to direct his rescue. However, the crew didn’t reach him in time for several reasons, the group concluded after interviewing officers and firefighters.
Regional fire experts were asked by Frederick County Chief Tom Coe to conduct a thorough, transparent, and unbiased review of the tragic incident
“It is every intention of every member of the Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services and this County to highlight the difference Josh made and will continue to make for the betterment of the fire service,” Coe said during a press conference Friday.
He added: “The conversations will be difficult, and the solutions may be complex, but we have to be willing to evolve our system in order to protect the life of every single firefighter in our system. The release of this After-Action Report isn’t as much closure as it is a beginning.”
Sara Laird thanked the firefighters, residents and county officials for their support over the past year.
“My husband loved being a Firefighter, he lived a life of service both at work and at home. I know that everyone who was present on the scene last August gave 110%. Based on this report and the ATF report nothing would have changed the tragic outcome other than the failure of the Corrugated Stainless-Steel Tubing (CSST) under lightning strike conditions. I hope that the legacy of my husband’s death will be to increase awareness of the dangers of CSST and lightning so that no other family has to live through this nightmare.”
Jim May, president of the county fire and rescue association vowed to support the recommendations to improve firefighter safety.
IAFF Local 3666 President Stephen Jones said: “This investigation report is published with the common goal of preventing future tragedy.
After conducting interviews with 61 firefighters and officers, reviewing department policies and how the agency ranks with national standards, the investigative group made a number of observations and recommendations.
Laird was inside the house and asked an officer outside to hand him the hoseline. He was informed that he should wait because there wasn’t a good water supply. Moments later, the officer turned around and didn’t see him.
““Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, Captain Laird Engine 251, I’ve fallen through the floor in the fire room.”
He went on to tell fellow firefighters how to extricate him. However, there was so much radio traffic that information was interrupted.
“Additionally, upon receipt of the Mayday, there was a lack of tactical discipline, crew integrity issues, and lack of coordination between units operating on the fire ground,” according to the report.
It took another four minutes before dispatchers at Emergency Communications activated the Mayday alert tone. Firefighters also remained on the same operational channel.
Laird moved around in the basement as conditions worsened and tried to keep his crew aware. However, several transmissions didn’t go through.
Meanwhile, they were attempting to find a way to locate and extricate him. Some left assigned positions to join the search.
“Eight and a half minutes after declaring his Mayday, Captain Laird made his final successful radio transmission at 17:09:33, saying, “[h]ey guys, tell my family I love them.”
He was in cardiac arrest as he was removed from the house. He was flown by state police helicopter to Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. where he was pronounced dead.
“There were several instances throughout the Ball Road incident where a clear and definitive chain of command failed to exist. The lack of a clear chain of command caused confusion about who was serving as the Incident Commander at various points throughout the incident, and who was serving as the Command Aide. In addition, throughout the Ball Road incident, there were numerous orders given by subordinate officers that were not coordinated through the Command Team or aligned with the incident objectives,” the report read.
The investigators also pointed out failures of officers to follow basic rules to protect their crews.
“Throughout the Ball Road incident, there were numerous occasions where crew integrity was violated. DFRS Officers who are charged with ensuring crew integrity either initiated these violations or observed them and did nothing about them.
“A Chief Officer left his assigned crew and entered the first floor without permission or instruction as the incident transpired… Several Company Officers abandoned their crew, leaving subordinates who they were responsible for operating alone…”
After several interviews, they also determined that a volunteer firefighter arrived on an engine with three career personnel who said they didn’t know him. “The career personnel, including the officer, did not know who this person was or their qualifications. From the minute the crew dismounted their rig, there was no accounting of this individual by the company officer. The volunteer firefighter then entered the IDLH on an uncharged hoseline with a crew that was unaware of who he was or what unit he was assigned. Shortly after that, the volunteer firefighter depleted his air supply in his SCBA and advised a nearby firefighter that he was low on air and had to leave. The volunteer firefighter then exited the structure alone, did not notify the IC, and returned to the apparatus that he responded on until he was relieved.”
The group went on to say that “one of these violations resulted in locating and extracting Captain Laird from the basement. However…it is only by chance and luck that these violations did not result in additional Maydays.”
The panel also said the chief needs to establish policies outlining the qualifications for both career and volunteer officers.
“The issue of disparity in professional qualifications between career and volunteer firefighters is not limited to Frederick County. For far too long, many fire chiefs, either of their own volition or under great pressure by local elected leaders or various advocacy groups, have permitted this equal but separate level of service to exist. In doing so, they are putting their own members at an increased level of risk, but they are also degrading the thousands of professional volunteer firefighters both in Frederick County and around the country.
This practice increases the cultural fissure between career and volunteer firefighters and violates the public trust by knowingly allowing disparate levels of service, depending on whether your community is protected by career firefighters, all-volunteer firefighters, or a combination of both. Professionalism has nothing to do with a firefighter’s membership status, i.e., career or volunteer. This report makes it abundantly clear that both career and volunteer members made mistakes, errors, and omissions.
As a result of tragic incidents like the Ball Road incident, fire service training standards, regulations, and requirements have continued to evolve. Not just for career firefighters but every firefighter. Professional standards and qualifications are the foundation for any professional fire department, whether all-volunteer, all career, or both.
There is a significant disparity in the qualifications and requirements for promotion at every level of supervision, between career and volunteer officers, despite being considered equal in the chain of command. They are expected to perform the same exact job function, and own the same level of command burden, yet have very different requirements for promotion.”
Investigators also noted that volunteers and career personnel were frustrated by the lack of guidelines,
“The current document standards and processing policy for the Fire and Rescue System lacks clarity, structure, and accountability. Throughout the investigation, personnel referenced an unapproved draft of operational guidelines for structural fires that has yet to be implemented after remaining as a draft for several months. Interviews identified frustration with overall policy development and implementation processes.”
The group added: “Firefighters operate in the most complex, dangerous, and time-deficient environments; our response system is the most effective when supported by strong policies, accountability, operational organization, communications, and teamwork. In the absence of consistent implementation of one or more of these tenets, individuals will begin to take matters into their own hands creating chaos for everyone.”