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Fire Department must act on sad lessons from fatal blaze

We know enough now about the death of Firefighter Joyce Craig to say that many things went wrong the night she lost her life battling a West Oak Lane basement blaze.

We know enough now about the death of Firefighter Joyce Craig to say that many things went wrong the night she lost her life battling a West Oak Lane basement blaze.

It's also clear that Craig's death is wrapped up in a larger problem: The Fire Department needs to recommit to giving its members the training they need and want.

Craig's professionalism and bravery are not in question. Neither is the bravery of other firefighters who gave their lives battling fires in recent years:

Lt. Robert Neary and Firefighter Daniel Sweeney, killed in 2012 when a roof collapsed in an abandoned factory in Kensington. Capt. Michael Goodwin, killed when he fell from the smoky roof of a Queen Village fabric store.

But what has to be questioned is the department's commitment to providing its members with ongoing training that could make them safer.

That's the question that underlies an internal department critique on the Middleton Street fire obtained by The Inquirer this week.

If you missed Aubrey Whelan's article Tuesday, here's the crux of the report: The department's response to the blaze was marred by delays, tactical errors, and communication failures.

There are "real training deficiencies" within the department.

And too often, basic skills are not reinforced until a "negative outcome" - like the death of Craig.

The critique's author, Deputy Fire Chief Richard Davison, urged the brass to act. Although the problems weren't new, he said, they were serious enough to prevent future tragedies.

The document is frustratingly vague - questions remain on how long it took before anybody realized Craig was missing and went to help - but hats off to Davison for calling out his department.

Joe Schulle, fire union president, says his members have been calling for more training for years.

A pattern developed. Firefighter deaths were followed by brief bursts of training that faded once the dust settled.

After Capt. John Taylor and Firefighter Rey Rubio died battling a Port Richmond basement fire in 2004, the department offered updated training for basement fires. A start, but it only lasted about a year.

Training efforts folded even faster after the more recent deaths, lasting only months. After Craig died, the department restarted basement fire training, Schulle said, but canceled it in two weeks and focused instead on taking yearbook photos for its forthcoming 145th anniversary.

His members are fed up, he said: "There's just not great value put into training."

Schulle's not the only one saying this.

Last year, a grand jury investigation into the deaths of Sweeney and Neary described the department's level of training as "uneven" and said it had been "significantly curtailed" over the last six or seven years.

Some of that is because of budget cuts, brownouts and company closings. With the department spread thin, training becomes secondary.

It falls to Commissioner Derrick Sawyer - who took over last summer - to get it done.

Sawyer was saying the right things when we talked Tuesday. That a more comprehensive report on Craig's death was coming. That the internal critique was meant to help the department understand what it could do better. That the department is committed to giving firefighters the training they want.

"We have to do more with training. It has to be part of the culture," he said, adding that he plans to reinstate basement fire training and Mayday training.

He doesn't expect anyone to just take his word on it. He promised results.

"A year from now, we can talk and you could say I did a good job or a bad job," he said.

It has to be a good job, Commissioner.