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Coatesville fire chief resigns after critical report

The resignation the Coatesville, Chester County, fire chief monday came after a blistering independent report that chastised the department as ineptly led and dysfunctional.

The resignation the Coatesville, Chester County, fire chief monday came after a blistering independent report that chastised the department as ineptly led and dysfunctional.

The evaluation was sought by the city after a Sept. 10 apartment fire resulted in injuries to seven firefighters, some of whom required hospitalization. The Inquirer has obtained a copy of the report which has yet to be made public.

Kevin Johnson, who had headed the Coatesville Fire Department since 2006 - an era that included a 13-month string of 70 area arsons - submitted his resignation Monday morning from the part-time position, and it was unanimously accepted by City Council at its Monday night meeting.

Johnson, who did not attend the meeting, did not return telephone or e-mail requests for comment.

The repor was written by James P. Smith and William Shouldis, two retired Philadelphia firefighters with decades of experience in firefighting safety.

It describes a chaotic scene of about 100 firefighters at the Millview Apartments complex Sept. 10. "Little or no direction was being relayed" from Johnson or his operations chief, it said, with firefighters "working for themselves." A "key" crew member was inside the building with a dead battery in his radio and out of communication, according to the report.

As a result, firefighters on an open-air stairwell did not know how much damage had occurred above them, the report said.

As one firefighter started to climb a portable ladder, the roof collapsed, hurtling debris at seven firefighters, some of whom were temporarily trapped on the stairs and some of whom sustained injuries by jumping from the second and third floors, the report said.

Standard fire-safety protocol, such as accounting for firefighters, was absent and led to some firefighters' reentering the building to search for a colleague "under extremely dangerous conditions," only to learn that he had gone home without telling anyone, the report said.

"In interviews and statements, it seems this was not an isolated occurrence," the report said. "In fact, the lack of accountability seems to be a chronic and widespread problem."

Coatesville City Manager Gary Rawlings said Monday night that the city code permitted him to appoint an acting fire chief, which he did immediately after receiving Johnson's letter. He said some of the changes the report recommended were needed and would be implemented.

Rawlings' selection, Jim Lentz, a career Coatesville firefighter who has headed the paid-firefighters' union, drew protest from a group of volunteer firefighters who attended the Council meeting.

Like some other municipalities, the city of 13,100 residents supplements a staff of 18 career firefighters with dozens of volunteers.

"It's a serious affront to all volunteer firefighters," said Art Daggett, who said he had worked as a volunteer for nearly four decades.

Five years ago, the selection of Johnson, a former volunteer who works full time as a firefighter at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, generated criticism even before it occurred.

In a letter to City Council, Richard G. Poulson, the attorney for the city's career firefighters, urged the city not to promote Johnson to chief in 2006, citing a 2001 incident in which Johnson waved a semiautomatic pistol at two police officers responding to a domestic dispute. Johnson pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment and possessing an instrument of crime.

Johnson came under attack again for underreporting fires during the city's arson crisis. From February 2008 to March 2009, federal investigators recorded 70 arsons in the Coatesville area, numbers that initially did not match Johnson's lower totals.

Johnson was also castigated for his hiring of Robert F. Tracey Jr., a firefighter with a conviction for passing bad checks, who later pleaded guilty to two of the arsons.

After the meeting, Lentz said he would do his best to honor the trust he had been shown by city leaders, and he expressed respect for the volunteers.

"I'm humbled by the opportunity to lead the city's Fire Department," he said. "In light of the recent report, training has already been scheduled to begin to address the issues" identified as problems.

Poulson said the report underscored the need for change.

"Hopefully, we're starting to turn a corner with the Fire Department in Coatesville," he said. "That would be a wonderful thing."