Instead of shameful silence, Dallas fire chief owes answers

Instead of shameful silence, Dallas fire chief owes answers

If you’re a Dallas firefighter, consider yourself warned.

The city will ask you to risk life and limb on your next call. You will answer with skill, courage and honor because it’s your profession and your calling. You do it for your colleagues and the residents who pay your salary.

But if the worst should happen, if you don’t make it back to your firehouse, don’t expect your bosses to stand up for you with the same skill, courage and honor. They might — but as Fire Chief Louie Bright III showed in the Stanley Wilson line-of-duty-death investigation, they might not.

The job is dangerous enough, but when a commander’s ineptitude leads to a firefighter’s death, everyone deserves answers. At the least, one might expect disciplinary measures, corrective actions and transparency.

What we’ve gotten from Bright and his boss, City Manager A.C. Gonzalez, is “mistakes were made” obfuscation: Errors were many, so no one need be held responsible. Astoundingly, one of Bright’s suggestions was that firefighters are responsible for questioning orders that they find troubling.

Wilson was killed fighting a six-alarm blaze at the Hearthwood North Condominiums in far northeast Dallas on May 20, 2013. The official Dallas Fire-Rescue report into his death was buried for 16 months and released only last week with Bright’s statement, questions not welcome.

So Wilson is just dead, a 28-year veteran firefighter who leaves a wife and two teenage sons. As of Wednesday, Bright wouldn’t answer questions about his report or how he arrived at his choice to discipline no one. We can only wonder whether it would have been released even now had Jenny Wilson, Stanley’s widow, not hired a lawyer.

Gonzalez is talking, but mostly just to defend his chief. Bright, he said, is the person best positioned to make these calls. “I wanted to make sure he thought through his decisions and that he was taking actions that were the best and most appropriate actions,” the city manager said. “I told him I would be supportive and expected him to use his best professional judgment.”

This means Deputy Chief Bobby Ross, the incident commander for Stanley Wilson’s last fire, stays on the job and could be in charge for the next big blaze. The Dallas and state fire marshal reports cite Ross as ordering Wilson’s team to search inside a building that firefighters had been pounding with water cannons for up to an hour, undoubtedly weakening the structure. The state report calls this “inherently dangerous”; Wilson was crushed by falling walkways. Ross, with little backup, denies giving the order.

Despite Bright’s efforts to diffuse blame, the state report points to risk assessment, supervisory and communication breakdowns that track to Ross, the incident commander.

If Bright has a better explanation, he owes it to his firefighters and the residents they serve to say so. And if Gonzalez won’t make him, don’t we still have a mayor and 14 City Council members with mouths and megaphones?

WHAT THEY SAID

“There has been a lot of talk of potential disciplinary actions for an employee or employees. The [Dallas Fire-Rescue] report revealed that many firefighters at the scene, including those with decision-making authority, should have handled things differently that night. … I do not believe discipline is merited.”

Dallas Fire Chief Louie Bright III, from his statement in releasing his department’s report into firefighter Stanley Wilson’s death after 16 months

“Regardless of how well-meaning he [Deputy Chief Bobby Ross, the incident commander] thought he was, he broke every rule that is established for a fire commander. And it cost Stan Wilson his life.”

Jim Crump, retired Dallas firefighter and Wilson’s longtime friend, who has been critical of department leadership from the day of the fire