Report Cites Miscommunication In Chicago Fire Captain’s 2012 Death

For the second time in two years, a federal investigation cited poor department communication in a death of a Chicago firefighter.

The latest National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health report, suggested a lack of radios could have played a part in the death of Chicago Fire Captain Herbert Johnson last November. Johnson suffered fatal injuries as he was battling a fire on the second floor of a two and a half story building, when the fire "flashed over" hitting him with a wall of heat and smoke.

The report noted that a building resident had notified commanders that everyone was out safely, investigators questioning why the Chicago Fire Department had made the decision to wage an internal battle against the fire, rather than a safer external attack.

"Risks taken to save property should always be less than those to save lives," the report said.

Johnson warned colleagues to get out of the building. But just as he issued that warning he collapsed. A fellow firefighter without a radio screamed a mayday, and colleagues dragged the injured fire captain from the building. But he suffered devastating injuries to his mouth and airway, and despite the fact that he had spoken to ambulance crews, he died at the University of Chicago Medical Center later that evening.

The report questioned why the firefighter who found Johnson had no radio, and raised the issue of so-called "variances", which permit rigs to run while personnel are detailed to other duties. Two of the engines at the fatal fire were down one firefighter each.

"A fire is an incredibly unpredictable dangerous thing," said fire union chief Tom Ryan, suggesting the report only bolsters his longtime advocacy of 100% staffing at all times. "An extra set of eyes and ears, an extra set of hands in a critical situation, can make the difference between life and death."

But a fire department spokesman said enough units were on station, that the variance was a non-issue in the fatal fire. He also noted that despite the fact that the firefighter issuing the mayday call had no radio, it was overheard by a radio-equipped colleague a few feet away. He noted that the incident occurred when the department was transitioning to all digital units, and that every firefighter was equipped with a radio just a few weeks later.

While the Fire Department said it would study the report's findings, Mayor Rahm Emanuel suggested Monday he wanted the department to learn from the tragedy.

"I want to see their response to that report and the recommendations they have in it," Emanuel said. "So we don't see what happened to Mr. Johnson happen again, and that we have the training to make sure that doesn't happen again."

For Johnson's family, the report raised troubling new questions.

"It is very painful for me and my family to read about the details surrounding Herbie's last day," his wife Susan said in a statement. "Our only hope is that this information can be used to make improvements that will save other firefighters' lives in the future."

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