WORKPLACE SAFETY

Virginia Department Cited in Blaze That Injured 7 Firefighters

ERIKA JACOBSON
Courtesy of Leesburg Today

The Loudoun County Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management has been cited by the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry’s Occupational Safety and Health Compliance division for violation of workplace safety standards. The violation notice stems from a May 25 house fire in which seven crew members were injured.

Specifically, the violation is for “employees that were exposed to fire hazards while engaged in search, rescue and interior structural firefighting activities at a single family residence.”

The department has presented additional information to the state agency in an effort to reverse the findings of a violation. Fire-Rescue Chief Joseph Pozzo said this is the department’s first occupation health and safety citation.

The document states that there was insufficient staffing on site at the time that fire-rescue crews entered the burning home on Meadowood Court near Leesburg. The citation, dated Nov. 24, does not impose a fine because Virginia law does not permit such penalties against public agencies.

Around 1 p.m. Sunday, May 25, crews responded to a 911 call for a structure fire on Meadowood Court east of Leesburg. Fire and rescue personnel arrived on the scene to find heavy fire coming from the attic of the two-story single-family home and flames quickly spreading. Firefighters entered the home to perform a search and to begin attacking the blaze. Conditions deteriorated rapidly and four firefighters were forced to escape through an upstairs window. In the process of escaping the home, six fire-rescue personnel were injured. A seventh fire-rescue personnel member was later added to the injured list.

Six of the seven injured men and women have returned to work. One career lieutenant, who was stationed in Ashburn, is still recovering from his burn injuries after a long-term stay at Washington Hospital Center.

A separate three-month regional investigation into the incident resulted in 64 recommendations for the fire-rescue department, ranging from additional training programs, communication processes and staffing. The final report suggests an increase to the minimum staffing requirements for engines, trucks and rescue companies to four qualified firefighters, a measure that would most likely require additional local tax funding from the county’s budget.

Pozzo said the crux of the violation is staffing, but he has made a presentation to VOSH that disputes some of the claims in the citation.
One of the National Fire Protection Association standards recommended for adoption by VOSH, 1720, was adopted by the county in December 2005 when the department’s service plan was adopted by the previous Board of Supervisors. Under that standard, staffing levels for a suburban area should be 10 firefighters arriving within 10 minutes of receiving the call. While acknowledging that there were not 10 firefighters on the scene, Pozzo said the department was still within the boundaries of the standard.

“You only have to achieve that 80 percent of the time,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that just in the turnout times and the response times that we have we meet that 80 percent.”

The citation also recommends the implementation of Standard 1500 from the NFPA, which addresses the two-in-two-out policy where a minimum of two employees must be located outside the fire when at least two employees enter the fire. Pozzo said the county does follow a two-in-two-out policy, but that the potential for imminent life danger
caused the captain on the scene to make a different judgment call in the Meadowood Court fire.

“Under NFPA’s [other] standards, if there is imminent life danger you can relax the two-in-two-out,” he said. Pointing to the Reserve Engine officer’s radio transmission that said, “Nobody out here to meet us. Gonna need to do a search,” Pozzo said crews had reason to believe residents could have been inside the burning home.

“It was the captain’s risk analysis assessment,” Pozzo said. “They needed to know if there was anyone in that house.”

Pozzo presented all of his counter information to VOSH last week, but is still waiting for a response.

“We presented information to the compliance manager that we hope will abate the citation,” he said.

The fire chief did point out that the agency has been working with VOSH since the two inspectors began their investigation into the incident.

“When you have a serious injury and a situation like this, we have a responsibility to report it, which we did,” he said.

While the concern of having enough personnel on Loudoun’s fire apparatus has come up in each investigation into the Meadowood fire, Pozzo said that, while full staffing of the department would be ideal, even that would not be able to prevent all dangerous situations from occurring.

“There are always going to be situations where a single engine pulls up and in looking at the situation there still may be that imminent threat. There could be a life- threatening situation that you have to make that judgment,” he said.

“Nothing is 100 percent. I can’t control a place of employment free from recognized hazards or from fire because I can’t control the way a building is built. As a fire chief, I can’t control when the engine company and the truck company get there. What I can control is the training they get before they got there. I can control the equipment we get them. I can control what our policies are and what our standards are. We clearly recognize that there are hazards in everything that we do.”

Republished with permission of Leesburg Today.

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