Chicago firefighters watch as others dig to rescue their trapped comrades in a Dec. 22 fire in a vacant South Side building. Two firefighters died in the blaze. (E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune / September 23, 2011)Poor communications and an insufficient number of radios were among shortcomings within the Chicago Fire Department that contributed to the deaths of two firefighters in a fire at an abandoned South Side laundry last December, according to a federal report.
The report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health also pointed to the lack of a system to alert the Fire Department to hazardous buildings as among the "contributing factors" that cumulatively put firefighters at risk.
The report said few of the firefighters who were sent into the vacant, dilapidated building in the 1700 block of East 75th Street on Dec. 22 had radios and that supervisors outside the building had no idea what the firefighters inside were seeing: flames crawling up wooden beams to the ceiling.
As the firefighters fought the blaze from the inside, others were on the roof, spraying water and cutting holes to vent smoke right up until the roof collapsed. Two firefighters inside the building, Edward Stringer, 47, and Corey Ankum, 34, were killed, and 19 other firefighters were injured.
Tim Merinar, who led the federal agency's investigation, said Fire Department supervisors should have taken a more defensive approach and ordered more firefighters out of the building once it was clear that no one was trapped inside, as firefighters had feared when they arrived at the early morning blaze.
The Fire Department received the report in July and has already implemented some of the agency's recommendations, department spokesman Larry Langford said Thursday.
The Fire Department now requires that firefighters inside a building provide more details to commanders about the situation, Langford said.
The department has also begun hanging tags on each firetruck that identify every firefighter assigned to the vehicle, in response to the report's recommendation that the department improve its ability to account for all firefighters working at a specific incident.
But one major recommendation — putting radios in the hands of every firefighter — won't be implemented until sometime in 2012, when the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communication says a much-delayed digital radio system will be operational.
The department currently provides a radio to one member of each team of two or three firefighters, Langford said.
Only five of the 13 firefighters who were in the building when the roof collapsed had radios, and none of those firefighters provided supervisors outside the building with a description of the conditions inside, the report said.