April 14, 2014

NYPD Creates a Fire-Response Guide While Mourning Officer Killed by Blaze

Taking Elevator to Fire Floor Proved Deadly

By Mark Toor

PATRICK J. LYNCH: Anguish over ‘foolish actions.’  

One Police Officer died April 9 and another remains in critical condition after they were exposed three days earlier to smoke inhalation and carbon-monoxide poisoning while responding to a fire allegedly set by a teenager in a Coney Island housing project.

Little Guidance Existed

NYPD officials investigating the response by Housing Bureau officers Dennis E. Guerra and Rosa Rodriguez found that department procedures were not clear on how cops should protect themselves in fires. The day after Officer Guerra died, Chief of Department Philip Banks III issued new policies for officers who encounter fires.

The new guidelines instruct officers to “walk up to a reported fire whenever possible.” If they do take an elevator, they should use their flashlights to check periodically for smoke. “If no smoke is detected in the elevator shaft, the [officers] may elect to use the elevator but must exit the elevator, at minimum, two floors below the affected floor and proceed cautiously via the staircase to the affected floor,” the policy says.

Officers Guerra and Rodriguez took the elevator to the 13th floor, where the fire was burning. Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who teaches at the John Jay College of 

Criminal Justice, said that the officers most likely had no idea what they were walking into.

“Police officers, especially in Housing, deal with fires all the time,” he said in an interview. “Most are contained within a unit. They are accidental and not life-threatening. This one was particularly intense, because it was an arson fire.”

‘A Policy Deficiency’

Police Commissioner William J. Bratton told reporters April 8, “We have determined that the department has not—does not have, and has not had—any policies specific to this issue of going into buildings and utilization of elevators. It’s a...policy deficiency. It is not unique to New York City; it is a consistency evidently in the profession.”

He said the lack of guidance is “something we are certainly—based on this incident—going to correct very quickly for ourselves and also take it to the larger profession, if you will.”

Officer Guerra, a 38-year-old father of four children between the ages of 7 and 20, died at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx. Officer Rodriguez, age 36 and a mother of four, remains in critical condition on a respirator. Her injuries were not considered as severe as Officer Guerra’s.

The two were the first first-responders to arrive at the fire in the Coney Island Houses in Brooklyn. They took the elevator to the floor where a mattress was burning in the hall, intending to evacuate the tenants.

‘Overcome by Smoke’

“But as they emerged from the elevator the officers were overcome by the acrid smoke quickly filling the hallway,” according to a statement Mr. Bratton released after the death of Officer Guerra. They were able to call for help on their radios before collapsing. Fire Department personnel found them on the floor of the hallway, which Mr. Bratton described as “pitch-black from the smoke.”

Officer Guerra had been with the NYPD for nearly eight years, Officer Rodriguez for three.

Mr. Bratton concluded, “It is a startling reminder that what can appear to be a routine assignment can very quickly become deadly. Police Officer Guerra gave his life trying to save others. And that is the ultimate selfless act.”

Funeral services for Mr. Guerra at St. Rose of Lima Church April 14 drew a throng of thousands of active and retired cops, as well as the Police and Fire Commissioners. Mr. de Blasio said he was being posthumously promoted to First Grade Detective, which will also improve the pension benefit received by his family.

Marcell Dockery, 16, who lives on the 12th floor, told police that he set fire to the mattress, which had been abandoned in the hallway, because he was bored. He said the blaze grew quickly out of control.

‘Deadly Consequences’

Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said: “We pray that every young person who hears of the tragic passing of hero Police Officer Dennis Guerra and of the suffering of Officer Rosa Rodriguez and their families, learns that there are deadly consequences that result from foolish actions.”

“The tragedy here is that a 16-year-old young man would not have common sense enough to understand the potential implications of lighting a mattress, as has been alleged, on fire in his own building,” Mr. Bratton said April 8. “How can any of us make any sense out of that?”

Mr. Dockery was initially charged with arson and assault. After Officer Guerra’s death, felony murder was added, carrying a maximum sentence of 25 years.

“While we are pleased that the Brooklyn District Attorney has seen fit to increase the charges to felony murder,” Mr. Lynch said, “we recognize that it will not bring our fellow officer, Dennis Guerra, back to our ranks, or a husband, father and son back to his family. At very least, it will start us on the road to achieving justice in this case.”

'A Good, Selfless Man'

Mr. de Blasio said, “We’ve lost a good man this morning—a very brave police officer, Dennis Guerra, who did something that most of us wouldn’t understand how to do...He went selflessly towards the flame, selflessly towards those who are in danger, no matter what the risk to him. It’s something that our police officers do every day. It’s something our first-responders do every day. It is something we need to appreciate every day...Officer Guerra was exemplary. He went to try to save people in need, and he has now lost his life.”

The NYPD’s new fire-response policy says that if officers do decide to take an elevator, they should look for smoke in the elevator shaft and then stop every five floors to repeat the check. They must tell the dispatchers whether they are taking the stairs or the elevator.

When they arrive on the fire floor, the policy says, officers on the staircase should look through the window on the door and touch the door to see whether it is hot.

“They should ensure the stairway door remains closed to lessen the risk of a chimney effect, which can draw fire to the stairwell and cause the fire to spread,” the policy continues. “If smoke and heat are suddenly present, drop to your knees, move close to the wall and retreat to your predetermined exit.”

Before the new policy was issued, the Patrol Guide provided little direction to officers at fire scenes, said NYPD spokesman Steven Davis. He said the message was basically, “Take action as deemed appropriate.”

Lack of Protocol Surprising

City Councilman Rory I. Lancman of Queens wrote to Mr. Bratton April 7 urging him to review the department’s fire-safety protocols. Mr. Lancman had previously been a State Assemblyman, where he was a leader in dealing with issues of workplace violence and safety.

“We tend to think of workplace safety in very narrow terms,” he said in an interview with THE CHIEF-LEADER. “But every occupation has its workplace-safety issues,” including policing, even though the job is inherently hazardous.

He said he was “pretty surprised” to find out that the NYPD did not have a detailed protocol for dealing with fires. “New York is probably unique in the number of high-rises and the population density,” he said. “...We need to do a better job of cross-training.”

Mr. Lancman said he would address the issue at hearings on the executive budget proposal, which is due next month.

Mr. O’Donnell saluted the actions of Officers Guerra and Rodriguez. “Nothing about protocol should take anything away from the cops putting themselves in harm’s way,” he said. “They’re heroes of the city for what they did. This is what make this an honorable profession.”