A report by the State Fire Marshal’s office says the death of San Antonio firefighter Scott Deem last year was preventable. The 60 page document released Friday highlights actions taken by firefighters and commanding officers at the scene at the Ingram Square Shopping Center last year.
When a firefighter is killed in the line of duty, the state launches its own review with the help of another fire department. In this case, the Houston Fire Department compiled the report, which lists 11 findings and recommendations the department should take.
On May 18 31-year-old San Antonio firefighter Scott Deem was killed in a four alarm fire inside Spartan Box Gym at a northwest side strip mall. Firefighters Brad Phipps and Robert Vasquez were injured.
“We are an excellent fire department, and we had a bad night, and that incident does not define us,” San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said. “What we do in the future is going to define us.”
Hood acknowledges mistakes were made that night.
“If you die in a fire ground, chances are there was some action or inaction that happened to cause that death,” he said.
Hood said his department agrees with the report.
“There may be some verbiage that we maybe ... don’t particularly like the way it sounds, but we wholeheartedly agree with the recommendations … and the findings going forward,” Hood said.
Part of the report says the fire department treated the incident as a house fire instead of as a fire in a commercial building. Hood said the department will revise policies on how certain structure fires are handled in the future.
The report also called into the question the decision to initially search the building for survivors “when the doors were locked and the lights appeared to be off.” It said the incident commander made this decision based on the possibility that an employee may be inside after hours working in an office.
“When they cracked the doors, we had a report of heavy black smoke coming out of the building and so that is an indicator that chances are there was going to be no survival by anybody,” Hood said. “... (But) things happened so quick that report probably never got back to command.”
Another finding in the report said firefighters didn’t have a rescue line to pull them out during their search for potential victims, and there was no water hose line with them when they entered. Investigators believed Phipps, who was injured in the fire, removed some of the ceiling during his search.
“The search crew saw what they believed to be fire in the attic and took actions outside of their assignment and changed from search to attack and began pulling ceiling without a hoseline readily available and unknown to command,” the report said.
The report also said accountability in tracking ground crews was ineffective.
"It was unclear what system was in place other than Officers and Command manually keeping track of the crews,” it stated.
Hood said new training was implemented shortly after the fire.
“We’ve done extensive rapid intervention team training. We started that in May right after the fire, and we completed that in August for the whole department,” he said.
The department has corrective strategies and training in place going into next year. The department has also designated a fire chief to oversee reforms in training.
“We are dedicating resources to make sure we look at every one of these actions to make sure that we complete them,” Hood said.
The department will also create a firefighter safety and survivability center in honor of Scott Deem. “We will build props in there that will challenge our firefighters to escape from entrapments, tanglements, zero visibility conditions,” he added.
The cause of the fire was deemed to be arson. Emond Johnson, 39, owner of the gym where Deem died, was arrested in October and is awaiting trial.
Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules.