By the time Atlanta Fire Capt. Danny Dwyer dragged the elderly lady from her burning home and onto her front porch, flames were roaring through the front windows.
Seconds earlier, he crawled into the home under the toxic, churning smoke and found the woman on the dining room floor. As Dwyer dragged her out, a flashover occurred — the interior was instantaneously engulfed in flames. He leaned over to protect her body. He knew he didn’t have long in those conditions, so he tugged her out the door and kneeled, heaving, on the porch, awaiting help.
Unfortunately, 95-year-old Sallie Skrine was pronounced dead at the scene.
Dwyer, with 20 years spent in some of the busiest firehouses, was seen as a hero. But soon that was forgotten and he was written up by superiors for not waiting for the rest of his crew before going in. They called it “freelancing.”
Instead of a medal, Dwyer will spend two shifts at home without pay. And it stays on his permanent record. “If Danny does this again, he might get terminated,” a veteran fire officer told me.
It’s something to ponder in those adrenaline-charged moments at 2 a.m. outside a burning home, decisions often made after firefighters are jarred awake from sleep: Should I go in to try to save a life? Or should I wait? And if I go, will I be second-guessed and get in trouble?
Those are all questions firefighters must make in an instant in a business that has become more science-driven and tempered, many say, by an overabundance of caution.
Dwyer, who is tall and gregarious, declined to talk for this story. Another half a dozen firefighters asked that their names not be used. It’s a paramilitary operation with lots of politics attached to it. Firefighters are brave, but they’re not stupid.
In a podcast called “Combustible,” Dwyer once expressed his views in an episode titled “What makes a good firefighter?”
He said he was once told, “Ninety percent is heart, the rest we can teach you.” Later, he added, “You can’t teach someone to have heart.”
Several firefighters spoke of an increasingly “risk-averse culture,” often mandated by chiefs safely tucked away in offices.
George Nour, a retired lieutenant who worked with Dwyer, said, “Before I left, I’d hear leadership say, ‘I don’t want any of my firefighters hurt.’ But what you’re saying is, ‘We’re more important than you.’ That’s counterintuitive to what firefighting is.”
Department rules, as pointed out by more than one firefighter, say pretty much that: Superiors “must look at all incidents from a prospective of risk vs. benefit. Always placing the safety of our members as the highest priority.”
Under that it lists:
1) Firefighter safety.
2) Civilian safety.
Hearing that, Nour said: “That’s sickening. That’s disgusting. You’re more important than anyone else? That’s not the concept of servant leadership.”
He continued, “Atlanta has a rich tradition of being an aggressive fire department, fighting fires from inside (structures) and trying to save citizens.”
I wanted to talk to fire honchos about this, but Sgt. Cortez Stafford, the department spokesman, was left to explain.
I asked him if I’d read the chart correctly, that firefighters’ safety was ranked above the safety of citizens.
“You are reading that correctly but the answer is no,” he responded. “Firefighter safety is important so that we can help the citizens we serve. We have to safely respond to incidents so that we can help when we get there.
“Firefighter safety involves the safety of civilians as well,” Stafford said. “For example, not driving recklessly to emergency incidents. It is very obvious that firefighters all over this country, including Atlanta firefighters, put their lives on the line every single day to protect the public no matter what.”
About 1 a.m. on June 28, several engines arrived at Sallie Skrine’s home on Collier Drive in northwest Atlanta. The woman, neighbors said, helped poor people with a food kitchen she operated.
According to Dwyer’s statement to superiors, he arrived suited in his protective gear and got to the front door as his two mates on the firetruck put on their gear. A firefighter pried open the burglar bar door. They believed a person was inside. Chief Sean Johnson ordered Dwyer and his truck mates to do a search of the interior. But time was of the essence. So rather than wait another 60 seconds for his truck mates to finish suiting up, Dwyer went inside with two firefighters from a different fire engine who were manning a hose.
Seconds later, he dragged Skrine from her home.
Two days later, four chiefs, including Johnson, held an after-action critique outside the home. According to Dwyer’s statement, Johnson asked him where was his crew? Dwyer responded he couldn’t wait and went in with another team.
Dwyer wrote: “I made a decision in a fraction of a second based on years of experience that given the fire conditions at that exact moment, there was an extremely high probability for ‘saveable lives’ inside the home.”
Tempers flared at the meeting held before numerous Atlanta firefighters, and for months Dwyer fought the ordered suspension. But last week, it was decided the sanction would stand.
One veteran firefighter told me the punishment is bigger than Dwyer. “Danny is a well-respected fire captain and he’s vocal. It’s like shooting a hostage. They’re sending a message. It’s a pretty scary precedent.”
Paul Gerdis, a fire lieutenant who heads the department’s union, said, “The mission went from fighting the house fire to saving the lady.”
“When you arrive, you bring experience of every fire you’ve been at. You know how far you can push,” Gerdis said. “There’s a difference between aggressive and reckless firefighters. Captain Dwyer is an aggressive firefighter. There is nothing bad about aggressive firefighting. Atlanta needs aggressive firefighting.
“We want firefighters to act with the knowledge and training in the best interest of the citizens without the repercussions of administrators far removed from the boots on the ground,” Gerdis said. “Firefighters swear an oath. They agree a citizen’s life is worth more than their own.
“Captain Dwyer acted out his oath in good faith and is now being punished for it.”
You wonder what he and others will think about when it’s time for another fateful 2 a.m. decision.
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