Former Philadelphia fire commissioner blasts commanders at fatal fire scene

Posted: October 12, 2012

Philadelphia Fire Department commanders' handling of the Kensington blaze that killed two firefighters in April was "disgraceful," a former city fire commissioner told City Council members Thursday.

Roger Ulshafer, who spent 33 years with the Philadelphia Fire Department, said commanders had risked lives unnecessarily in the April 9 fire at the former Thomas Buck Hosiery Co. building.

The commanding officers on the scene didn't follow basic procedures, such as establishing a "collapse zone" around the building that would have prohibited firefighters from entering the adjoining furniture store, Ulshafer said.

Two firefighters, Lt. Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney, died when a wall of the burning factory collapsed onto the furniture store. "If I were to describe the command and control and emergency-scene management, my definition would be disgraceful," Ulshafer said during an informational hearing before Council's Committee on Labor and Civil Service.

Ulshafer's testimony echoed previous comments by Philadelphia Fire Fighters' Union officials. Councilman James F. Kenney, the committee chair and son of a retired city firefighter, called for the hearing on the department's procedures.

But his requests for information were blocked in large part by Nutter administration officials who refused to discuss much of anything while a state grand jury was investigating possible wrongdoing in connection with the blaze.

Ulshafer, Philadelphia's fire commissioner from 1988 to 1992, questioned why Neary and Sweeney were in the furniture store when no one required rescue. "It screams: 'Keep away. Take a defensive position,' " he testified.

Michael Resnick, city director of public safety, said he could not respond to the accusations because a grand jury convened by District Attorney Seth Williams, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were investigating the fire.

The firefighters' union, Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, first claimed in May that department commanders had failed to establish a collapse zone at the scene. Resnick denied that at the time and accused Local 22 of lying.

Last month, union officials reiterated their claim and filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the city for not releasing audio recordings and written reports from the blaze.

Kenney said he was disappointed that the Nutter administration refused to answer questions about the basic operations of the department, information he said was not directly related to the grand jury investigation.

"I think it could have been more productive had they participated," Kenney said.

Vincent Dunn, retired deputy chief of the New York City Fire Department, said he was shocked by the outdated technology Philadelphia firefighters used, calling it "prehistoric."

New York, Dunn said, has computerized tablets that allow commanders to track firefighters at the fire scenes. Philadelphia, he said, does not always know which department employees are at a particular fire.

He and Ulshafer said the city Department of Licenses and Inspections needed to do a better job of sealing up vacant properties. After neighbors complained about vagrants entering the Buck building, L&I cited owners Michael Lichtenstein of Brooklyn and his family several times.

Retired firefighter David Sweeney, Daniel Sweeney's father, sat quietly at the hearing, then was given a standing ovation at the hearing's close. After the proceedings, he said, "My life is changed forever."

"The sense of loss is very intense," he said. "We cry every day. We mourn his death every day."


Contact Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520, hillmb@phillynews.com.

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