The Hamilton Fire Department released an internal report Monday about the death of firefighter Patrick Wolterman during an arson fire in December 2015.
Wolterman died Dec. 28, 2015 while fighting a fire at 1310 Pater Ave. The fire was intentionally set by homeowner Lester Parker and his nephew, William Tucker of Richmond, Ky.
Parker and Tucker are both in prison after convictions for aggravated arson and murder following a trial November 2017 in Butler County Common Please Court. Last week, Parker’s conviction was upheld by the 12th District Court of Appeals, and the same appellate court upheld Tucker’s conviction on Monday.
The city participated in an investigation conducted by NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, through the Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program to determine the fire ground conditions which contributed to the fatality, officials said.
NIOSH issued the report of the fire on July 14, 2017.
The city put together a committee of firefighters and officers including the fire chief to determine what was needed to do to improve safety, reduce the likelihood of future deaths and maintain the high level of fire protection in the city. That is the report released Monday.
The report points to contributing factors in Wolterman’s death:
• The fire was set using gasoline and in a manner to delay the discovery of the fire
• Current practices in communication were followed, but improvements in timing, alarm information, and fire ground communications were necessary
• Finding the location of the fire was delayed because of weather conditions and an initial incorrect report people being in the house.
• Cellar doors were opened, which gave fresh air to the fire when crews still did not know where it was located.
• Not all available communications equipment was used by firefighting personnel during the fire.
Wolterman and another firefighter entered the front door of the house with Wolterman handling the hose. Firefighters were told there was an elderly couple possibly inside, according to the report. Within a very short time, flames began shooting out through the front door and under the front porch.
“Back out, back out, back out,” was shouted by a firefighter. Wolterman had fallen through the floor into the basement below.
Firefighters re-entered the front door to try to find Wolterman. They followed an original attack line through the front door until the hand of one of the rescuing firefighters fell into hole in the floor, with the hose line burned and still flowing with water.
Wolterman was found in the basement. He was no longer wearing his helmet, hood or face piece, according to the report.
The report also notes Wolterman’s personal portable radio had not been turned on when he entered the house.
“In this particular fire it made no difference,” said Hamilton Fire Chief Mark Mercer. “We want to use this to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That here are procedures in place.”
Mercer said the Pater Avenue fire was not a type they fight daily, as it was started by gasoline with the purpose to be concealed.
Through investigation, Mercer said, officials know Tucker started the fire 30 minutes before the heat activated the security alarm sending a police officer to the scene.
“That fire had burned for so long that it smothered itself out in a lot of ways … once it got more air, it ran itself back up,” Mercer said.
He noted the winds were strong with gusts up to 30 mph. On the backside of that building as the fire dies down and that smoke is flowing out the front, there’s almost no smoke blowing out the back.
Mercer said after the cellar door was opened, the smoldering fire still needed air, which happened when a hole in the floor was created by Wolterman’s fall.
“I have watched my people suffer for three years, I have watched this tear apart my department. I have seen the personal side of how it has changed us. I have seen the things were have done and changed we have made to possibly stop this from happening in the future,” Mercer said.
The Hamilton Firefighters Union Local 20 released a response to the 64-page report saying the “process to create the report was flawed and inconsistent as well.”
The union found fault with the length of time it took to complete the report and said the original report was amended in 2016 and changed without the consensus of the full committee.
“The cuts to Hamilton Fire Department in 2013, closing Station 27 (Quint 27) and Engine 22, continue to play a major factor in day-to-day emergency operations and certainly factored into this night. Our inability to respond in a timely manner, dedicate proper resources … and provide the best and safest practices for our citizens and firefighters are ongoing problems. While we appreciate the work that went into it, this is not a complete and full report,” said Tony Harris, union president, in a news release.
“We acknowledge the improvements in officer development, scene size-up and fire tactics. There is more work to be done, as an increased focus on training for all members should be a priority.”