Reisterstown VFC Firefighter Gene Kirchner (l) and Lutherville VFC Firefighter Mark Falkenhan.
Jonathan Hart is a retired division chief from the Baltimore County Fire Department in Maryland. The column below, reprinted with his permission, was published today by The Baltimore Sun. It addresses staffing issues for command officers in Baltimore County that Hart connects to the recent critical injury to Reisterstown VFC Firefighter Gene Kirchner and the January, 2011 death of Lutherville VFC Firefighter Mark Falkenhan (increasing command officer staffing was a NIOSH recommendation). Here’s the column:
Over two years have passed since firefighter Mark Falkenhan was killed at an apartment fire on Dowling Circle in Towson. His death resulted, in part, from a collapse of the Incident Command System (ICS), when first-arriving units were faced with heavy fire and multiple rescues. ICS is a procedural policy for ensuring that command and control mechanisms are continually utilized during mitigation efforts at every incident. “Command” is assumed by the officer of the first-arriving unit and passed to the responding chief officer upon his or her arrival.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducts investigations of fires that result in firefighter deaths. Among the recommendations made by the NIOSH investigation of the Dowling Circle fire was the following: “Increase command officer staffing to ensure fire fighter safety during emergency operations.”
Despite the clear findings of the NIOSH, very few operational changes have been implemented by the Baltimore County Fire Department to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future, and nothing has been done to improve command staffing.
In fact, Baltimore County has fewer on-duty command officers (per capita) than any other department in the metro area. Baltimore County has only three command officers on duty at any given time. Similar-sized jurisdictions (Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Baltimore City) typically have six to 10 command officers on duty. These departments understand how essential it is to provide adequate command and control on the fireground by enabling command officers to reach the incident scene quickly.
By virtue of the limited number of command officers in Baltimore County, each officer is responsible for a very large geographic area (battalion). Therefore, response times for command officers are excessive. It is not unusual for battalion chiefs to take 20 or even 25 minutes to respond to an incident. These chiefs arrive too late to command incidents during the critical early stages of the fire attack, which is typically when things go wrong — sometimes very wrong.
On Jan. 11, 2011, it took approximately 20 minutes for the initial battalion chief to arrive at the fire that claimed Mark Falkenhan’s life. Upon arrival, that chief immediately made the determination that the building was not safe for interior firefighting operations; he ordered the evacuation of the building. Seconds later, Mark transmitted the “Mayday,” signaling that he was trapped in a third floor apartment. What would have happened if the battalion chief had arrived one minute (or even 30 seconds) earlier that day?
This past Wednesday, firefighter Gene Kirchner, 25, of the Reisterstown Volunteer Fire Company was critically injured during a house fire with people trapped. Although the facts surrounding his injuries are yet to be determined, it seems highly likely that in this case too, his injuries resulted in part from the delayed response of a command officer. The command officer was responding from the Woodlawn/Catonsville area, as would normally be the case. A response from that location to Reisterstown takes about 15 minutes.
Excessive response time; fire involving trapped civilians; critical firefighter injuries. Coincidence?
I joined the Baltimore County Fire Department in 1987, when the department had six battalion chiefs on duty on each shift. Today, there are just three battalion chiefs on duty on each shift. Each chief oversees 16-20 stations. Each chief covers more than 200 square miles. Unlike other departments in the region that assign multiple chief officers on structure fires, Baltimore County dispatches just one. Baltimore County’s fire and EMS personnel are at unacceptable risk of injury and death because there are too few command officers.
I retired as a division chief in February 2012. Throughout my tenure, I remained vehemently opposed to the reduction in command staff that occurred during the 1990s. There are a number of reasons I decided to retire, but my inability to convince the administration of the need to improve command staffing levels (especially in light of Mark’s death) was certainly a factor. I didn’t want to be the chief-in-charge of an incident at which we lost another firefighter whose death might have been prevented by enhancing command staffing.
Two months following my retirement, I met with County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. I wanted him to hear from me how dire this situation is. I told him I feared that if command staffing did not improve, another incident would claim the life of a firefighter in Baltimore County. To Gene, the Kirchner family, and to all my brothers and sisters in the Baltimore County Fire Service, I’m praying I was wrong.
Command & control: Retired Baltimore Co. division chief goes public over command staffing after last week’s critical injury.19 comments
NIOSH released reports into the line of duty deaths of two firefighters whose deaths we covered. Below are the reports and some related links. Both men’s names will be added to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial during Memorial Weekend, October 6 & 7.
January 19, 2011, Baltimore County, MD, Firefighter Mark Falkenhan:
July 28, 2011, Asheville, NC, Captain Jeff Bowen:
Video: ATF modeling with radio traffic from MD apartment fire that killed Firefighter Mark Falkenhan.15 comments
This is the video (in three parts) the ATF produced to accompany its engineering analysis utilizing Fire Dynamics Simulator (FDS) of the fire that killed Lutherville VFC Firefighter Mark Falkenhan last year. There are links above to the ATF report by Adam St. John P.E., Fire Protection Engineer ATF Fire Research Laboratory and the internal report the Baltimore County Fire Department released in March. The modeling is matched with the fireground and dispatch radio traffic.
Description with video:
This video summarizes the ATF Fire Research Laboratory’s Engineering Analysis of the fire that occurred at 30 Dowling Circle on January 19th, 2011. ATF Fire Protection Engineers were asked to utilize engineering analysis methods, including computer fire modeling, to assist with determining the route of fire spread and the events that led to the firefighter MAYDAY and subsequent Line of Duty Death of Firefighter Mark Falkenhan.
LODD report: Read Baltimore County investigation into death of Lutherville VFC Firefighter Mark Falkenhan.11 comments
Excerpt from the Executive Summary:
In fairness to those units involved in this incident, the investigating team had the advantage of examining this incident over the period of several months. Furthermore, given the size and nature of the event, and the fact that arriving crews were met with serious fire conditions and several residents trapped and in immediate danger, all personnel should be commended for their efforts for performing several rescues which prevented an even greater tragedy. The team did not identify a particular primary reason for FF Falkenhan’s death. What were identified were many secondary issues involving but not limited to crew integrity, incident command, strategy and tactics, and communications. These issues are identified and discussed, and recommendations are made in appropriate sections of the report, as well as in a consolidated format in the Appendix.
Some of the issues identified in this report may require some type of change to current practices, policies, procedures or equipment. Most, however, do not. Specifically, the analysis and recommendations regarding Incident Command and Strategy and Tactics show that if current policies and procedures are adhered to, the opportunity for catastrophic problems may be reduced.
Mark Falkenhan was a well-respected and experienced firefighter. He died performing his duties during a very complex incident with severe fire conditions and unique fire behavior coupled with the immediate need to perform multiple rescues of victims in imminent danger. It would be easy if one particular failure of the system could be identified as the cause of this tragedy. We could fix it and move on. Unfortunately it is not that simple. No incident is “routine”. Mark’s death and this report reinforce that fact.
Image from report showing conditions on arrival.
Above is video from WMAR-TV of yesterday’s funeral for Lutherville VFC Firefighter Mark Falkenhan. Falkenhan’s 14-year-old son Christian rode on Lutherville’s 1954 Mack that took his father to Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens.
Click the image above to see more pictures from Essex-Middle River Patch. More pictures can be found at BaltimoreSun.com.
The Baltimore Sun today has an editorial about the death of Firefighter Falkenhan that is well worth reading. Here is an excerpt:
The word “hero” gets used too often to describe the most pedestrian of admirable behaviors, from the star quarterback who marches his team for a winning score to the kid who finds a missing wallet and turns it in. But exceptional bravery, special ability, exceptional deeds and noble qualities — those are what define an authentic hero, and Mr. Falkenhan lacked for none of them.
It was not by accidental circumstance or naiveté that he ended up on the third story of that Hillendale apartment complex in the midst of a fire, searching for missing residents. He knew the risks as well as anyone could. But his selfless desire to help others drove him forward into the flames.
That’s what made him exceptional. That’s why his legacy is important. That’s why the community is in his debt.
WUSA-TV in Washington, DC (with assistance from CNN & WBAL-TV), has been kind enough to provide live streaming of the pool camera inside Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore during the funeral this morning for Firefighter Mark Falkenhan of the Lutherville Volunteer Fire Company in Baltimore County. Firefighter Falkenhan was killed last Wednesday during an apartment fire. The funeral is scheduled for 11:00 AM EST.
Updated details on the funeral for Lutherville VFC Firefighter Mark Falkenhan. News coverage of the viewing.2 comments
The video above is from Saturday’s viewing.
A reminder that the viewing for Lutherville VFC Firefighter Mark Falkenhan who was killed during an apartment fire last Wednesday continues tonight from 6:00 PM until 8:00 PM at Ruhl Armory, 1035 York Road in Towson, Maryland.
The funeral is at 11:00 AM on Monday at Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5200 N Charles St in Baltimore. Firefighter Falkenhan will be buried at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, Fallen Heroes Section, 200 East Padonia Road in Timonium.
Baltimore County Fire Department Division Chief Michael Robinson asked us to pass along this information about the funeral.
Line of Duty Funeral: 1/24/11
FF Mark G. Falkenhan
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen: 5200 North Charles Street, Baltimore Maryland
Take I-83 from the Baltimore Beltway (695) to exit 9A –Cold Spring Lane (East) to Left on North Charles Street to the Cathedral. Personnel will direct from that point.
Funeral specific information:
- Weather forecast calls for highs of 20-25 degrees with no precipitation
- Personnel are encouraged to “carpool” parking is extremely limited
- Apparatus should arrive by 0815 and other vehicles by 0900
- Uniform of the day is Class “A” or if not issued Class “B” with Blauer jacket
- Appropriate clothing for the cold: “layering is encouraged”
- All badges are to be covered by “mourning bands”
- Blauer jackets may be worn until the procession arrives/lineup of personnel and at other times when not in official formations.
- Reflective type issued coats shall be removed in church once seated
- Honor Guard personnel will provide direction on line-up position etc.
- Seating is limited to approximately 1500 so all may not be seated in the church-
- Rehab to include: food, drinks, sanitation, medical and heated shelter will be provided at the site.
- Ground support is available on site and can be accessed via logistics @ICP
- Following the funeral, the procession will be initiated and specific instructions will be provided to the Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens. No apparatus will be parked in the cemetery and the BCOPD will provide that direction upon your arrival.
- The incident command post (ICP) can be contacted via TG-195 or 8tac-93 (NPSPAC) for out of county units –radio designation “funeral command”