Weissman tragedy reinforces fire department safety

Weissman tragedy reinforces fire department safety
(Susan Braun)

Friends and family said farewell to Joshua Weissman during his February 16 funeral, but the fallen paramedic will continue serve the Alexandria Fire Department in death as he did in life.

“We will learn from this,” said Chief Fire Marshal Robert Rodriguez. “We will, at a later time this year, [gather again] and talk about the events that happened and what we can learn from this and how we can prevent this from happening again.”

Weissman, 33, plunged through a gap in a highway overpass while dashing toward a burning vehicle on February 8. Falling about 20 to 30 feet before landing in Four Mile Run creek, the Bristow man suffered a serious head injury.

Taken to a Washington Hospital Center, the seven-year department veteran succumbed to his wounds less than 24 hours later. His death marked the first of its kind — officials call it a “traumatic death” — in 87 years.

(Courtesy photo)

In an eerily similar incident more than eight decades earlier, volunteer firefighter George Washington Whalen was left with a crushed back and fractured skull after tumbling about 100 feet. Known as the “baby of the fire department,” Whalen was just 15 when he joined his brother and other firefighters on August 2, 1924 fighting a blaze on the Bellbrook, a wooden ship docked at the city’s waterfront, according to an account by the Alexandria Gazette.

“At about 4:30 a.m. Whalen asked one of the firemen for a match, saying he wanted to light a cigarette,” the Gazette reported later in the day. “His request was complied with and he moved backward on the ship. That was the last seen of him … Next they heard cries and groans from the bottom of the ship.”

Whalen landed face up on a pile of junk in the bottom of the ship’s hold. His friends took a break from fighting the blaze, which began about 2:16 a.m., to lower a wooden stretcher down to the teenage fireman. They later transferred Whalen, who never lost consciousness, from the deck to a waiting ambulance using a makeshift rope ladder.

The teenager lied about his age to become a firefighter. He joined the department with the doomed hope of marching in the annual State Fireman’s Convention parade in Harrisonburg.

Reporters eagerly covered Whalen’s six-month fight for life, including a baseball game held to raise funds for his family, and his eventual death. “Death comes as sweet relief to [Whalen],” the Gazette’s front page told readers on February 21, 1925. “Whalen put up one of the most gallant fights against death ever known.”

Firefighter safety has advanced by leaps and bounds since Whalen’s death and likely in ways the 15-year-old could never imagined. Where firefighters once donned canister masks to protect them from smoke inhalation, they now wear pressurized breathing apparatuses.

In the 1970s and 80s, department personnel had to read a gauge on their air tanks — not the easiest task in a smoke filled environment — to know how much time they had, said Rodriguez. These days, a firefighter’s gear includes a lighted heads-up display reporting the air tank’s supply level. Firefighters also can hook into each other’s breathing apparatus and share air, he said.

Physical fitness regimens and periodical checkups have been instituted to cut down on heart attack fatalities, which the department’s suffered twice since Whalen’s death.

The department also employs a health and safety unit, which monitors firefighters working an incident. In the aftermath of a fire, a safety officer is the first back on the scene, monitoring for dangerous gases and particles, before clearing it for other department personnel.

Despite advances in safety equipment, procedures and preparation, unpredictability comes with the job, Rodriguez said.

“We can train and we can practice, but every time the call goes out you’re never sure what the call will be,” he said. “What we try to teach our folks is to be as prepared as possible … In this particular case, it’s one of those things we couldn’t have planned for. It was just a fluke accident the way it happened and it’s extremely unfortunate that it happened to Josh.”

But now they can adapt for it in the hopes of sparing a future life. Most advances come from unfortunate circumstances, Rodriguez noted, holding up automobile seatbelts as an example. Someone along the way realized the restraining straps could cut down on accident deaths, he said.

“Every event is a learning experience, every unfortunate event,” Rodriguez said. “While we’re saddened by the loss it’s also a learning experience and we have to take those opportunities to learn from what happened and try to take the necessary steps in the future to not have something like that happen again.”