Fresno Fire Department commanders and firefighters have gone through more than 63,000 hours of training, and new training officers have been hired as the agency recovers from criticism in the wake of a March 2015 fire that seriously injured Capt. Pete Dern.
Fire Chief Kerri Donis spoke to the City Council on Thursday about steps her department has taken to improve safety and training over the past year at the recommendation of a special review team of outside firefighting experts. That panel was convened in the weeks following the Cortland Avenue fire in which Dern fell through the roof of a burning garage and was trapped for more than 1 1/2 minutes.
The City Council made a midyear adjustment to Fresno’s 2015-16 budget, adding $1.5 million for better safety, training and oversight. About $200,000 of that was for training, while the rest went to hiring a new deputy chief, four new training officers, three new battalion chiefs and a storekeeper for firefighters’ personal safety gear.
The ultimate goal is that everybody goes home at the end of the day and they have a quality of life at the end of their career.
Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis
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Part of the training has involved working to instill a change in culture, assuring incident commanders fully assess the risks of a fire and that firefighters “button up” in their personal protective gear and “slow down” to assure safety.
“I think there was a tendency to put ourselves in harm’s way at all costs just to put a fire out,” Donis said. “The ultimate goal is that everybody goes home at the end of the day and they have a quality of life at the end of their career.”
“If it takes 10 seconds longer to get there, so be it,” she added. “If it takes 15 seconds longer to get there, so be it.”
The Serious Accident Review Team convened by Donis after the Cortland Avenue fire issued a 274-page investigation report in January 2016 that was critical of the firefighters’ practices, including not doing a thorough assessment of the risks and displaying lax attitudes about the use of safety gear.
An inspection of Dern’s gear indicated he was not wearing his protective gloves and that his helmet was not strapped on. After falling through the roof, Dern was engulfed in flames for more than 90 seconds. He suffered second- and third-degree burns on 70 percent of his body. The incident and his long rehabilitation received national attention. Dern spent 164 days in the burn unit at Community Regional Medical Center.
City Councilman Garry Bredefeld praised Donis “for doing the right thing and opening yourself up to criticism.”
“You have taken a tragedy and turned it into something that will benefit your department and many others,” Bredefeld added.
The SART report included more than 160 separate recommendations. So far, Donis said, 30 have been completed, and another 83 are in the works. More than 50 others are in a queue, prioritized on factors including risk, schedule and cost.
“The Cortland incident forever changed the FFD, resulting in inspired and improved safety practices,” Donis told the council. “The department is steadfast in the commitment” to put the SART recommendations in place.