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Assistant Fire Chief Fined Over 'Close Call' Incident

By Brian Maass

DENVER (CBS4)- A Denver Assistant Fire Chief has been fined 24 hours of pay in connection with a 2012 "close call" incident that nearly cost a Denver firefighter his life.

Denver's Department of Safety issued the order April 22, docking Assistant Denver Fire Chief Dave McGrail the equivalent of three days' pay for failing to ensure a written report on the 2012 incident was disseminated to department members.

The discipline is only occurring now, three years after the fact, after a CBS4 Investigation uncovered what happened and reported on it last October. Two weeks after that 2015 CBS4 report, the Denver Fire Department launched an internal investigation into what the CBS4 Investigation revealed.

On May 20, 2012, Assistant Chief McGrail was overseeing a fire scene at an auto salvage warehouse in north Denver. Lt. Joseph Duran stepped through a fiberglass skylight and nearly fell 25 feet to the ground. Duran was able to catch himself and was not injured.

Following the incident, Duran wrote up a report on what happened and said he turned it in to McGrail, assuming it would then be disseminated department wide so others could learn of the dangers of translucent fiberglass skylights. But that never happened, and three years after the Duran case, Denver firefighter John Whelan stepped through a similar fiberglass skylight, leading to his death.

skylight firefighter fell thru
The building where Whelan fell(credit: CBS)

In the disciplinary case provided this week to CBS4, McGrail said he recalled telling Duran to submit his report to the Denver Fire Department's Safety and Training Division. McGrail said he did not recall ever receiving a copy of the critical report.

"Chief McGrail took responsibility for not following up," stated the disciplinary order. "He said if he had it to do over again, he would have made sure Lieutenant Duran's document was received and reviewed by the chain of command and by the Safety and Training Division."

McGrail was found to have violated three department rules but the disciplinary letter notes,"Nothing in the record suggests that this was willful. What is clear is that Assistant Chief McGrail was remiss in not taking steps to make sure that the report was submitted to the Safety and Training Division to determine if it was suitable for training and educational purposes."

Some department members have privately speculated that if information about that incident had been widely shared, the Whelan case might have had a different outcome. Last June, during a minor dumpster fire which Assistant Chief McGrail oversaw, Whelan climbed on to a warehouse roof and stepped through another fiberglass skylight, falling 17 feet to the floor. Whelan died several weeks later.

John Whelan
John Whelan (credit: Denver Fire Department)

Denver Fire Chief Eric Tade said he was unaware of the nearly identical incident in 2012 until after Whelan's 2015 death. He said he had never seen the written report on what happened in 2012.
The Fire Department and Safety Department have both stressed that there was no intent to hide the "near-miss" in 2012. The Fire Department said there were "Gaps in communication that diluted the full dissemination of information Department-wide… there are opportunities going forward to enhance the information exchange when important details from these types of incidents occur and information needs to be disseminated in a more expedient fashion."

According to city and fire department documents, Assistant Chief McGrail took responsibility for the lack of communication in 2012 which led to an important document not being shared department- wide.
"Assistant Chief McGrail was very open and candid during the Internal Affairs investigation," according to a safety department letter. "Assistant Chief McGrail has stepped up and taken responsibility."

The National Institute of Safety and Health has now issued a nationwide alert to fire departments across the country regarding the danger of translucent corrugated roof panels, the kind of panels firefighters Duran and Whelan stepped through.

CBS4 Investigator Brian Maass has been with the station more than 30 years uncovering waste, fraud and corruption. Follow him on Twitter @Briancbs4.

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