Watertown chief: Changes at N.Y. fire academy not in response to Peyton Morse's death

The state fire academy has replaced the plywood box in which Morse suffered a medical emergency with a mask-confidence training prop


Craig Fox
Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — The state fire academy is no longer using a mask-confidence training prop inside which city firefighter Peyton L.S. Morse was training when he suffered a medical emergency last March and later died.

On March 3, Mr. Morse was training inside a 21-foot-long, 3 1/2-foot-tall wooden box at the New York State Academy of Fire Science in Montour Falls, near Watkins Glen, when he was stricken with a medical emergency. He died nine days later in a Pennsylvania hospital.

On March 3, Peyton Morse was training inside a 21-foot-long, 3 1/2-foot-tall wooden box at the New York State Academy of Fire Science in Montour Falls, near Watkins Glen, when he was stricken with a medical emergency. He died nine days later in a Pennsylvania hospital.
On March 3, Peyton Morse was training inside a 21-foot-long, 3 1/2-foot-tall wooden box at the New York State Academy of Fire Science in Montour Falls, near Watkins Glen, when he was stricken with a medical emergency. He died nine days later in a Pennsylvania hospital. (Photo/Morse Family)

The fire academy has replaced the plywood box with a mask-confidence training prop manufactured by a German fire equipment company.

Nearly a year after the young firefighter's death, this spring's firefighter recruitment class will be the first to use the new training prop as part of a series of changes that the fire academy is implementing.

But the fire academy didn't replace the wooden tunnel — called "the box" — in response to what happened to Mr. Morse, Watertown Fire Chief Matthew R. Timerman said.

It was planned long before the incident with Mr. Morse, as part of a grant award to obtain some new training equipment.

Chief Timerman continues to be frustrated with the way the fire academy administration has reacted to Mr. Morse's death, stressing that changes would have to be made so it does not happen again.

"A reasonable person would have taken a hard look after Peyton's death," Chief Timerman said.

Last month, Chief Timerman expressed disappointment that the Public Employee Safety and Health, or PESH, determined the fire academy did nothing wrong when Mr. Morse suffered the medical emergency. Chief Timerman has been adamant the recruit's death could have been prevented.

An investigation into the breathing apparatus that Mr. Morse was wearing has determined it was working properly that day. An autopsy revealed that Mr. Morse, 21, was in good health.

Plans were long underway to replace the mask-confidence training prop before the incident with Mr. Morse.

The fire academy obtained a federal grant in 2018 to acquire the manufactured mask-confidence prop and other training equipment.

The change in equipment came to light after the DeWitt Fire Department inquired about an injury to one of its firefighter recruits who fractured his arm while training on a ladder at the academy on Aug. 31, 2021.

Three weeks later, DeWitt Fire Chief Jason C. Green sent a letter to the academy to find out how the incident happened.

The unidentified DeWitt firefighter was injured after falling from a ladder that had been turned upside down for a training exercise.

In a responding Dec. 14 letter, James B. Cable, the fire administrator for the state Fire Prevention and Control, wrote that a 2018 Assistance Firefighters grant award was obtained to support changes with firefighter survival and self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA, training at the academy for mask-confidence training.

The new mask-training prop was installed at the academy in December.

"The prop didn't kill Peyton Morse," Chief Timerman said. "It was the neglect of his instructors."

He and other fire officials across the state have become increasingly concerned about the training that recruits receive at the academy, with some describing it as an atmosphere of a college fraternity. There's also been complaints of a series of recruit injuries in recent years.

To make a real difference, changes "in attitudes and culture" have to be made at the academy, Chief Timerman said.

The only changes that the fire academy made were the result of the funding obtained through the federal grant, he said.

As part of those changes, the academy will discontinue the use of the gym building that had been used for training for decades.

In his inquiry, Chief Green sought an explanation to the circumstances in which his fire recruit was injured while training on a ladder. Chief Green also wanted the academy to find solutions so future recruits aren't injured in that manner.

The fire academy investigated the incident with the DeWitt recruit.

The unidentified DeWitt firefighter was among recruits who were simulating an incident in which they had to jump out of window and escape down a ladder. Recruits were getting hooked on to the ladder during the training exercise, so an instructor turned the ladder upside down to prevent that from happening.

The DeWitt recruit got entangled with the ladder and fell.

According to Mr. Cable's Dec. 14 letter, the fire academy has purchased straight ladders that will prevent recruits from getting entangled during ladder bailout evolutions.

The academy is evaluating other changes, such as placing mats or cushions below, in the ladder training, Mr. Cable wrote.

Chief Green had also expressed concerns that the injury had not been properly reported. Instructors that day were unaware that the injury occurred; he also asked about the chain in command when an injury occurs.

In his letter, Mr. Cable wrote that the academy is reviewing how injuries are reported.

Last week, Chief Green told The Watertown Daily Times that the academy needs to do more to ensure the safety of recruits.

Mr. Cable thanked Chief Green for inquiring about the incident involving the DeWitt recruit, writing that he appreciates when stakeholders offer feedback because it's "an important and necessary component of the ongoing process of continual improvement of the Recruit Firefighter Training Program and the State Fire Training Program as a whole."

Mr. Cable invited Chief Green to contact him if he had any additional questions or concerns.

That response to Chief Green's inquiry was in direct contrast to Chief Timerman's experience with the fire academy administration, the Watertown chief said.

Unlike the DeWitt fire recruit incident, the academy has not conducted its own internal investigation into Mr. Morse's death, he said.

The academy administration has not responded to his questions about what happened to his recruit and if any changes have been made as a result of his death, Chief Timerman said.

"I got nothing, no reaction," he said.

On the day of the incident, Mr. Morse was using the breathing apparatus during training inside the fire academy's gymnasium. It was during his third week of training, known as "hell week."

At about 1:30 p.m. that afternoon, Mr. Morse was inside the tunnel, while wearing an air pack and a mask covered with tape when he began to struggle.

While he was inside the box, some recruits heard the alarms going off and Mr. Morse say, "I can't breathe."

He was found unresponsive halfway out of the box. He was taken by an academy van to a nearby hospital and transferred to a Sayre, Pa., medical center, where he died nine days later.

Asked for a response about any changes at the academy, the state Department of Labor referred to a previous statement that was provided to media outlets in November.

"After a thorough investigation, no violations were issued by the New York State Department of Labor to the New York State Fire Academy in Montour Falls or the City of Watertown in connection to the death of Peyton Morse," it reads.

Calling it "an alleged" incident, the Labor Department said it was not investigating the incident involving the DeWitt recruit, adding that it investigates all complaints.

"...We remain committed to protecting New Yorkers' safety on the job," according to the statement.

The state police's Violent Crimes Unit with Troop E, based in Canandaigua, has been assigned to investigate Mr. Morse's death. The unit investigates assaults, homicides and other serious crimes.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH, also is conducting an investigation to determine how to prevent similar situations in the future.

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(c)2022 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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