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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sue Lani Madsen: Rescue crews have to act, even if they get fined for it later

Everyone was just doing his job.

When the Pullman Fire Department was called out for traffic control last April, they didn’t expect to be facing water rising from 3 inches to 3 feet in minutes. They did what firefighters do. They rescued 22 people from urban floodwaters using equipment at hand.

When the Department of Labor & Industries received a complaint about an unsafe work situation, it investigated how it could have been done better. It did what L&I does. It issued recommendations, citations and a fine.

The flooding was an unprecedented event for Pullman. When the water rose, people were trapped in buildings and on cars on the north end of Grand Avenue in the neighborhood of Dissmores and the Cougar Country Drive In. No one knew how long the water would be high or when it would crest. With water pressing against outswinging doors, firefighters smashed windows to create escape paths for workers. They used a front end loader to drive into the water to transport firefighters and rescue citizens.

Frank Ameduri from L&I’s Division of Occupational Health and Safety in Olympia said he and his colleagues take no pleasure in assessing fines on first responders.

“I certainly understand the instinct to rescue, but even firefighters should do it safely and not put people at more risk,” Ameduri said.

He also emphasized that if officials from his division had been there during the flood, they would have offered advice, “but we would never tell them no you can’t do that. We are not going to get between first responders and a rescue operation.”

Pullman Fire Chief Mike Heston was out of town that night, but expressed confidence in his team and its decision to rescue.

“Last thing we want to do is stand on the sidelines and watch,” Heston said. “It invites freelancing and puts more people in danger.”

It’s always a judgment call between responders taking a risk and reducing risk for the public.

The city of Pullman was issued three citations for assigning employees “to swift water rescue duties without being department trained and certified;” for wearing fire turnouts but not wearing personal flotation devices or water rescue helmets; and for riding unsecured in the bucket of a front end loader.

Heston said his crew knew the risks, knew the intensity of the water.

“Our job is to solve problems, and to weigh the risks versus the benefits,” he said. “I hire problem solvers.”

The city of Pullman Public Works department was already on site with the front end loader to sandbag around a city wellhouse. Heston admitted it would have been better if the firefighters took off their heavy turnout coats and put on PFDs. He would have appreciated a warning but noted the $2,700 fine was nominal and could have gone up to $13,000 per citation. They’ll take it and move on.

“I understand L&I is just trying to do their job,” Heston said.

He noted firefighters are less bothered by the fines than by speculation over who made the complaint.

According to Ameduri, there is no provision under existing rules for L&I to just provide an after-action report with suggestions for improvement. If corrections are identified, fines must be assessed. The fines do not go into the general fund but into a designated fund to help injured workers get back to work.

On paper, the problem has been resolved. According to Ameduri, after a three-year study the city of Pullman recently adopted a policy saying it doesn’t do swift-water rescue. In a perfect world, that means it will call for certified specialists in the next swift-water emergency. In the real world, it will mean improvising, because specialists are hours away when minutes count.

According to Heston, if a similarly unprecedented situation occurs, they’ll have to respond to meet their obligations to protect the public. In the fire service, unusual events like this are known as low-frequency, high-risk, no-discretionary-time events and they pose the highest risk for first responders.

But facing a variety of potential and hypothetical threats, departments have to pick and choose preparedness. The required gear and certifications for special operations are expensive; equipment and supplies expire faster than they’re used and training time is limited.

Rep. Joe Schmick, (R-Colfax,) has been working on training issues for fire departments, especially the volunteer departments providing coverage for most of Eastern Washington.

“Firefighters tell me it’s our job to protect our citizens,” Schmick said. “They say, ‘Tell us whatever you want, but if we can save people safely, we’re going to do it and sometimes you have to improvise.’ ”

You can find a better way to do anything if you have six months to think about it. Emergency situations don’t have that luxury. It could have been tragic, but in the end, it wasn’t.

“I’m really glad the people were rescued and really glad no firefighters were hurt,” Ameduri said.

So are we all.

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