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Death of Fire Department Captain Yields Critical Federal Report

By Ted Cox | December 3, 2013 3:00pm
 Tom Ryan, president of the firefighters' union, said one thing never changes: "This is an extremely dangerous, unpredictable job."
Tom Ryan, president of the firefighters' union, said one thing never changes: "This is an extremely dangerous, unpredictable job."
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

GAGE PARK — A federal agency has issued a report critical of Chicago Fire Department operations in the death of Capt. Herbert Johnson in a Gage Park blaze a year ago.

According to the report, issued by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, poor communications on the site of the Nov. 2, 2012, fire contributed to the death of the 54-year-old Johnson, a 32-year veteran who'd been promoted to captain earlier last year.

The report stated that contributing factors to the death included a modified building with abundant horizontal ventilation thanks in part to the multi-story enclosed rear porch and the lack of a sprinkler system, but also cited insufficient Fire Department communication and the lack of proper protective equipment.

"They're really very in-depth, and they usually go to great lengths to get it right," said Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2. "But it never changes. This is an extremely dangerous, unpredictable job.

"You can do everything right, and still the wrong thing happens, and unfortunately in this case it was very tragic," Ryan added Tuesday.

"Each report is helpful," said Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford. "We try to learn from both our triumphs and tragedies."

An arson investigator found the fire was accidental and started in the attic, but it's believed a flash fire brought on with the horizontal ventilation as firefighters fought the fire above contributed to Johnson's death, which was caused by fatal injuries to his respiratory system.

Langford tempered the report's criticism, saying the NIOSH incident reports typically function as "a tutorial for other departments across the country.

"They did not point to any one glaring thing that led to the tragedy of Capt. Johnson," he insisted.

The department trains extensively in cross-ventilation, he said, and the lack of radio communications cited by the report was inconsequential in this case. "That was not an issue that had any real impact on whether Capt. Johnson survived or not," Langford said. Although not all firefighters had a radio headset at the Gage Park fire, he added, by the end of that month a year ago all Chicago firefighters had been equipped with such radios.

Johnson urged firefighters to clear the main floor of the house before being caught in the flash.

"He did what he would do," Langford said. "Everybody else got the word. That was Herbie. And he was not able to get himself out. That's the tragedy."

Within moments, a fellow firefighter communicated a "mayday" that Johnson was down, by voice but not by radio, but that made no difference in the reaction time and Johnson's survival, Langford said.

The report also recommended the creation of a stationary command post with aides to the person commanding operations to improve communication, but Langford dismissed that.

"We don't have aides to the commanders," he said. "At a fire like this fire, we have several chiefs on site. Whereas your smaller towns may have one chief running the whole fire, we have several chiefs, and each one has responsibilities. So we don't need the aides."

Yet Ryan took issue with that.

"Many times you show up at the fire scene and it's chaotic," he said. "There are so many things they're responsible for, and they don't have an assistant. They don't have a chief aide.

"And it's very difficult for them to manage all these duties at one time — manage personnel and safety and suppression and make sure the onlookers are being kept back," Ryan added. "There are all kinds of things that happen."

Ryan said the union would welcome aides assigned to commanders on site, a practice he said the department discontinued in the '80s.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Tuesday that officials in his office had already contacted Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago and the CFD about the report, adding, "They want to see their response to that report and the recommendations they have in it. So we don't see what happened to Mr. Johnson happen again and that we have the type of training to ensure that won't happen again."