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A look at the death of Detroit's Walter Harris. Read NIOSH report.

MI Detroit Harris Intv

Click the image above by The Detroit News for’s previous coverage of the death of Firefighter Walter Harris.

Read complete NIOSH report

Firefighter Close Calls

Paul Bassett video from Detroit

Read article on Detroit’s firehouses & the money allocated to fix them

Two days ago we gave you some insight into the problems in Detroit, Michigan, its dilapidated firehouses and how money that was allocated to fix up the stations was squandered. Now, comes the NIOSH report on the death of Firefighter Walter Harris and its focus on other parts of the infrastructure of a very troubled city.

I happened to get up early on Saturday, November 15, 2008 and the first thing I saw on the computer was someone alerting me to a LODD in Detroit. Trying to get out as much information as I could get my hands on about Firefighter Walter Harris’ death, I have to say I was stopped in my tracks when I came across a then seven-month-old video on The Detroit News website. I think I realized it before the paper did that Walter Harris was featured in that story. What stuck me, besides the oversized personality of Harris that seemed to come right through the lens, was this quote which I originally posted that morning as a caption for the picture above:

“Breaks you heart. Breaks your heart. Breaks your heart. I am sure every guy here would say the same thing: breaks your heart. And all of these guys here man, do whatever they can for the people here in the city”. The words of Firefighter Walter Harris in an April, 2008 interview with The Detroit News on the decay, the vacant buildings and the state of the fire department.

I am sorry to say I can no longer find that video on the paper’s website or elsewhere. It gave very good insight into what the firefighters of Detroit face and how, as firefighters tend to do, they make it work despite unbelievable problems and neglect. A regular reader, Paul Bassett, recently put together a video of images from Detroit that focuses on the firefighters and the crumbling city.

It was one of those vacant buildings that Walt Harris talked about that took the 38-year-old firefighter’s life. With the NIOSH report. we go from the emotional and anecdotal to the clinical view of why Harris died. Click the link to read the whole report. Below, are conclusions published by NIOSH:

  • ensure that the incident commander conducts a risk-versus-gain analysis prior to committingto interior operations in vacant/abandoned structures and continues the assessment throughout the operations
  • ensure SOPs are developed for fighting fires in vacant/abandoned buildings
  • ensure that the incident commander maintains close accountability for all personnel operating on the fireground
  • ensure that a separate incident safety officer, independent from the incident commander, is appointed at each structure fire
  • ensure that a respiratory protection program is in place to provide for the selection, care, maintenance, and use of respiratory protection equipment, including PASS devices.
  • be aware of programs that provide assistance in obtaining alternative funding, such as grant funding, to replace or purchase fire equipment that can support critical fire department operations.

Additionally, municipalities and local authorities having jurisdiction should:

  • develop strategies for the prevention of and the remediation of vacant/abandoned structures and for arson prevention.

Although there is no evidence that the following recommendations could have prevented this fatality, NIOSH investigators recommend that fire departments:

  • ensure that an EMS unit is on scene and available for fire fighter emergency care at working structure fires
  • develop inspection criteria to ensure that all protective ensembles meet the requirements of NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting

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