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Sept. 29, 2000

Seattle Fire Department cited, fined $79,200 for safety violations

TUMWATER - The state Department of Labor & Industries has fined the Seattle Fire Department a total of $79,200 for violating worker safety regulations during a fire that injured two firefighters and destroyed a historic landmark in Ballard last spring.

L&I's investigation into the April 6, 2000, three-alarm fire at the former Sunset Hotel in Ballard resulted in five violations - one categorized as willful, three as serious and one as general.

The willful violation was issued for ordering a firefighter to enter the burning, three-story structure without a partner. Specifically, the fire department failed to ensure that all firefighters operating in hazardous areas of the structural fire worked in teams of two or more, as required. An employee was directed to go to the third floor of the burning building, without a partner, to assess conditions. The employee was put in a position where immediate assistance was not available in the event of injury or acute illness, the investigation showed.

"The fully involved structural fire which created thick black smoke and a potential roof collapse, represented imminent danger conditions, which could have resulted in death or severe permanent disability to the lone firefighter," the report said.

The willful classification indicates that the employer knowingly or intentionally violated a worker-safety rule, or exhibited plain indifference that a violation was occurring and failed to take corrective action. The firefighter was not injured. The penalty was $63,000.

A serious violation with a penalty of $7,000 was assessed for the fire department's failure to follow the manufacturer's procedures in the operation of an aerial ladder truck. The ladder truck, a reserve unit put into service at the multiple-alarm fire, was extended and manned by a firefighter who was spraying water onto the roof of the three-story building. The investigation determined that the ladder was extended too far at too flat an angle, contrary to the manufacturer's specifications. The ladder subsequently collapsed, and the firefighter fell to the pavement with it and was injured.

A second serious violation, with a penalty of $2,200, was levied for the department's failure to inspect the ladder truck monthly or after every 10 hours of operation, whichever occurred first.

The final serious violation, with a penalty of $7,000, centered on the department's failure to provide training and education specific to the use of the reserve ladder truck.

A general violation was cited for failing to conduct annual aerial ladder apparatus inspections as required. There was no penalty assessed.

A second firefighter was injured when he leaped from a third-floor window after his self-contained breathing apparatus began running out of oxygen and he was unable to find his way to safety before it was empty. Investigators found no violations related to the incident.

Although L&I inspectors determined that firefighters were exposed to dangerous hazards during the course of the fire, the department's high level of cooperation during the subsequent inspection suggests that it is serious about firefighter safety, inspectors said.

The report also recommended that the Seattle Fire Department check the inspection records for all of its aerial apparatus to ensure that inspections are being conducted on an annual basis.

It was also recommended that the fire department:

  • Provide escape lights, painted fluorescent hose direction arrows or some similar means to help firefighters escape a building fire where there is poor-to-zero visibility.
  • Utilize heat-sensing devices for victim searches or fire detection.
  • Upgrade respirators - when they become available - to provide additional warning time for firefighters to escape dangerous atmospheres when oxygen is almost depleted.

The citations were reviewed by the state Firefighter Technical Review Committee, a legislatively mandated labor/management group that advises L&I on fire service-related compliance activity.

The fire department has 15 business days to appeal L&I's citations and penalties.

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