Cover Story: Out of the Fire

Firefighter who ran out of air during deadly Oakley fire illustrates problems with training, safety, former district chief says

Feb 4, 1999 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Cincinnati Fire Lt. Dave Johnson (right) and Firefighter Gerald Belle were trapped Jan. 15 in a burning building until they happened upon a window.

The alarm on Johnson's air mask rang out: He had only five minutes of oxygen left. Those minutes passed quickly as the men looked for an escape from the smoke-filled building. The smoke was too thick, and the men could not see what was in front of them. Johnson took his last breath, reaching out in desperation. His hand touched a window by what he calls "the grace of God."

Later, Johnson heard about a new technique — which already had been taught to some Cincinnati firefighters — that could have turned his five minutes of air into 15 or more.

"The training center is doing a good job," said Johnson, an eight-year veteran. "But we don't have a lot of survival training. I found out about the 'extension technique' a little too late. At least we made it out."

This, said former District Training Chief Allen Boyle, is a perfect example of safety problems that face the Cincinnati Fire Division. Detailing those problems in a Jan. 7 memo to Cincinnati City Council caused Boyle to be removed as training chief two weeks before he retired.

"The technique allows a firefighter in that type of situation to get maximum time out of the air in their tank," he said. "It was taught to our last recruit class."

But just teaching the recruits isn't enough, Boyle said.

"We need to get these guys all the training they need to help them survive," he said.

Boyle's comments — in public and in his memo to council — have prompted a call from Councilwoman Jeanette Cissell for an investigation into fire division training and budget issues. Cissell also is asking the administration to explain why it took action against Boyle simply for providing to council information she requested from him and discussed with his superiors last July. An administrative report responding to Cissell's questions is expected later this month.

Rather than serving the public by addressing needs in the fire and police divisions, Cissell said city administrators appeared to be falsely portraying police and firefighters as complainers who always wanted more and using tactics like Boyle's reassignment to silence those who might speak out.

As an explanation for transferring Boyle, Fire Chief Robert Wright said that in writing a memo to council, Boyle failed to follow the chain of command.

"There's a no-care attitude toward the police and fire divisions (on the part of the city's administrators)," Cissell said. "This is not about chain of command. It's about power, and it's about hiding information from the public."

Safety Director Kent Ryan and City Manager John Shirey did not return calls by press time to comment for this story.

In his memo, Boyle, who retired from the division on Jan. 22, outlined several problems in firefighter training, including lack of in-service training that would keep veteran firefighters up-to-date on new techniques, procedures and equipment.

Because the state does not require firefighters to go through in-service training, how much update training is done is up to each department. Boyle said that the Cincinnati Fire Division requires 16 hours of in-service training a year, which was insufficient and incomplete.

"Firefighters need continuing training, which we have fallen behind on," he said. "Technology changes, and they need to keep their skills up. Like the saying goes, if you don't use it, you'll lose it."

On Jan. 7 — the day Boyle sent his memo to council — he was reassigned by Chief Wright. Boyle said he had taken his concerns to Wright before sending the memo.

"When I talked with the chief, he said that the problems were because of budget constraints and there was nothing he could do," Boyle said. "I know he is trying, and I also know the way the system works."

Wright said that while the fire division was working on improved training, Boyle had not talked to him about the concerns he listed in his memo.

But Cissell said safety administrators were made aware of Wright's concerns last July when she asked Boyle to write a memo.

At the time, Cissell was trying to see whether police and fire administrators would support a motion for the city to buy the Swifton Commons mall, turn it into a state-of-the art police and fire training center and deter crime in the neighborhood as well.

Cissell said she asked Boyle to write a memo, hoping that his knowledge would add support for her idea when she took it to city administrators.

"(Boyle) knows more about that department and that equipment then anybody over it," Cissell said.

But instead of support, Cissell said Safety Director Ryan responded to her idea and the July 29 memo Boyle wrote at Cissell's request by saying, "Heads are going to roll because Chief Boyle knew the chain of command."

On July 30, Cissell received a memo from City Manager John Shirey, which Cissell said reflected the administration's ongoing lack of concern for true police, fire and public safety needs and revealed the city's priority — simply making do.

"The administration does not support a relocation of the Fire Academy or Police Academy to Swifton Commons," Shirey wrote. "There are many higher-priority capital needs of the fire division, including the rehabilitation of many of the city's existing fire houses. These priority needs were outlined in my previous reports to the city council regarding maintenance of the city's buildings."

Boyle said his Jan. 7 memo, which was sent to council a week before the Oakley fire, was his final attempt to grab the city's attention.

"Council is elected to make sure things get done," he said.

In addition to the lack of sessions to keep firefighters updated, Boyle's memo took issue with:

· Not having adequate equipment to train recruits.

· Only having five fire training instructors for each recruit class.

· Not allowing time for instructor recertification, required by state law.

· Insufficient training facilities.

· Falling behind on required classes, such as the Hazardous Material class that has not been taught since 1990.

· A failure to conduct "common sense" classes.

Boyle said that recruit classes were training on older equipment instead of the current equipment being used out in the field.

"Not only are the recruits not using the same equipment, but they also don't get a ladder truck to train on except for a short time," he said.

Wright said the concern about training equipment was invalid.

"Because the equipment is not first-line doesn't mean it's not good enough to be trained on," Wright said.

As for the ladder truck not being available during the entire 20 weeks of training, Wright said he stumbled on that problem by himself.

"That was a valid concern that Boyle never came to me with," he said.

But Wright said that the problem had been corrected, and a ladder truck is available every day for training classes.

The state requires that during hands-on training, there be a ratio of one instructor to every five students.

"There is no way this is happening," with five training instructors, Boyle said. "We have two classes a year, and last year we had a class with 42 recruits. How can this be getting done?"

Boyle said the understaffing problem in the training center had been ignored by administrators. When Boyle started with the division in 1968, both police and fire training had five instructors each, Boyle said. Now, he said, the police training center has 17 instructors, while the number of fire training instructors remains the same.

"There are all kinds of things recruits need to be trained for because there are all kinds of incidents that we respond to," Boyle said. "The Cincinnati Fire Division just does not have enough people to make sure the firefighters are receiving sufficient instruction."

And Boyle does not think that instructors are given enough time to complete the six hours of continuing education required by state law.

"These instructors are not getting the support system that they need," he said.

As a solution, Boyle said he proposed having a designated staff develop and teach the in-service training program. The staff would be composed of five veteran officers, two captains, three lieutenants and two driving instructors.

The recruit training would consist of a minimum of one captain, four lieutenants and two firefighters. This would allow more time for instructors to develop new training techniques, such as survival training, and help with the instructor to student ratios, Boyle said.

But Wright said that hiring more instructors was not an option.

"His solution is to have more people brought in for training, but we are not going to be able to solve these problems with just getting more people and more money," Wright said. "Until I know we have done all we can do, then I am not in the position to demand more people."

Wright said that he was trying to deal with staffing problems by using "creative and alternative" solutions.

District Training Chief Lacey Calloway, Boyle's replacement, said he had set up a program in which training instructors would have assistant instructors with at least three years of experience in the department.

"This would relieve the constraints of the 1-to-5 ratio without hiring new instructors," he said. "We have already put up notices for anyone who wants to be an assistant trainer."

Calloway also has proposed that in-service training become decentralized with one instructor at each district.

As for Boyle's other concerns of the insufficient training facilities and the lack of in-service training, Wright said those problems are being addressed.

The fire division, he said, is negotiating for a new training center.

And, he said that the hazardous materials class, required by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, that had not been taught for eight years was in the process of being finalized.

"We were working on a program that would make it uniform for all the firefighters to be on the same page," Wright said.

But Boyle thinks the fire division needs to do more than just what is required. He proposed that the training evolve to include "common sense" classes, such as high-rise fire training, officer training, incidental command safety training and survival training.

"Common sense dictates that these classes would give a comprehensive training to the entire fire department, not just when they first enter the division," he said. "This is a young fire division. They are educated and street-wise but sometimes that just isn't enough."

Survival training, which was used as an "experimental training" in the last recruit class, will now be implemented across the board to include in-service training, Wright said.

"Very few people knew about this type of training, so it is very new," he said.

Wright agreed that the survival training would have helped Johnson and Belle when they were trapped in the Oakley building. He also said that it is a good example of why it needs to be implemented.

Belle, a 12-year veteran, said he was not so sure.

"I had heard about it, but the problem with it is that you have to sit very still, which was not an option for us," he said. "The technique is good but not when you are trying to escape."

But Johnson said he should at least have known about it.

"If I would've known the technique, maybe when my bell went off I wouldn't have been thinking, 'Gee, I'm six minutes away from being dead.' "

Still, both said it was their experience that got them out of their predicament.

"I think training helped us stay calm, but I don't know if training can do everything," Belle said. "Sometimes you have to makeshift and that's where the experience comes in."

Johnson said that his training also helped him remain calm.

"The training can't prepare a firefighter for everything they will encounter," he said. "But definitely certain survival training can help." ©