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New Details Emerge In Incident of 2-Month Rookie's Death

Chicago Tribune via Yellowbrix

September 22, 2010

New details about the death of a rookie Homewood firefighter were revealed Monday in a scathing report that indicates the suburban fire department was ill-prepared to handle a fire of the magnitude that killed two people and seriously injured another in March.

An investigation into the extra-alarm house fire on March 30 that killed firefighter Brian Carey, 28, determined the Homewood Fire Department used “ineffective” fire control methods; failed to “recognize, understand and react” to quickly deteriorating conditions; and was short-staffed and ill-equipped to take on such an intense blaze.

Homewood fire Chief Robert Grabowski did not return messages left Monday afternoon at his home and office.

“An incident commander needs to constantly assess whether his strategies and tactics to control and extinguish the fire are working,” the report states. “The commitment of firefighters’ lives for saving property and an unknown or marginal risk of civilian life must be balanced properly.”

The report, issued by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, urges Homewood fire officials to use more caution and adhere to federal fire safety guidelines.

“We do not place blame or fault, since those determinations can involve legal issues outside our authority,” said institute spokesman Fred Blosser.

Carey is the only firefighter to die in the line of duty in the 109-year history of the Homewood Fire Department. His death triggered an outpouring of grief from area residents and throughout the Chicago area’s tight-knit firefighting community.

Carey had been in the department less than two months when he was among the first to respond to a large house fire in the 17600 block of Lincoln Avenue. According to the report, after the fire’s incident commander on the scene learned that a disabled man was trapped inside the home, he sent a crew of firefighters, including Carey and Karra Kopas, 21, with a hose through the front door.

Once inside, the crew moved into the kitchen, where they encountered “thick, black rolling smoke.” According to the report, the crew witnessed “fire rolling across the ceiling within the smoke.” They immediately yelled, “Get out!” Some were able to exit safely, but Carey and Kopas remained inside.

Kopas survived but sustained first- and second-degree burns. Carey was found “wrapped inside the 2.5-inch hose line that had ruptured.” The report said he was not wearing the breathing apparatus firefighters are required to wear. A medical examiner determined Carey died of smoke inhalation. The disabled man, Wendell Elias, 87, also died in the fire.

Kopas declined on Monday to talk about the report. Members of Carey’s family could not be reached.

Kerry Federer, who is on the board of directors for the Illinois Firefighters Association and is an assistant chief with the Highland Fire Department, said sometimes instincts take over during a major blaze and it may compromise training.

“Adrenaline plays a big part in fighting fires,” he said. “When somebody is in danger or in trouble, your mind forgets about the safety aspect, and you do what you have to do to save the person on the other end.”

The report criticizes officials at the scene for not fully understanding the size, scope and intensity of the fire. It recommends that incident commanders take a “360-degree situational size-up” of the home and the fire before putting firefighters at risk. The report noted that Carey, Kopas and the unnamed incident commander had combined for just 24 hours of “fire behavior training” out of more than 5,654 total training hours in the department.

Homewood fire officials were also criticized for having an inadequate number of firefighters on hand, forcing ambulance personnel to help with fire suppression.