WATERTOWN — Firefighters know they face serious risks on the job every time they go out on a call.
But Watertown Fire Chief Matthew R. Timerman believes departments should feel their recruits are safe when they’re training at the New York State Academy of Fire Science in Montour Falls, near Watkins Glen.
So Chief Timerman was troubled when he learned that 35 recruits ended up going to the hospital because of injuries and illnesses they experienced while training at the state fire academy during the past five years.
“You would think it would be more controlled,” Chief Timerman said.
During those five years, 99 incidents involved recruits being injured. Many of them were not serious and did not require trips to the hospital.
The fire academy conducts two fire training sessions a year, with about 32 recruits attending each session. The sessions last 11 weeks.
The data about the injuries comes from a heavily redacted report that the city of Watertown obtained from the state Department of Labor as part of the city’s investigation into how Watertown fire recruit Peyton L.S. Morse died after training at the state fire training academy last year.
Peyton, 21, had a medical emergency while going through a training exercise on March 3, 2021. He died in a Sayre, Pennsylvania, hospital nine days later.
The incident involving Peyton is listed in the report as “cardiac arrest.”
Chief Timerman and Peyton’s parents, David M. and Stacy L. Morse, have been critical of the way the academy handled his training. They blame the academy for his death. They believe his death could have been prevented.
They also have been critical that the state’s Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau, or PESH, determined the fire academy did nothing wrong when Peyton had the medical emergency.
The Watertown Daily Times filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the city to obtain the report.
Mr. Morse was “very alarmed” to learn about the 99 incidents that occurred at the fire academy during the past five years, although he acknowledged that firefighting can be dangerous and injuries can occur.
But he and Mrs. Morse believe the report proves their accusations that the academy fostered an atmosphere of a college fraternity with instructors who bullied recruits.
“The instructors were ignoring obvious signs of injury, dehydration, fatigue, etc. Why? Because of a culture of abuse and hazing has existed for decades,” Mr. Morse said.
Many injuries listed in the report are typical to what could happen to a firefighter. Those kind of injuries can’t be avoided, Mr. Morse said. They include rolled ankles, knee injuries, a dislocated finger, lacerations, cramping in hands and pain in legs.
Some of the minor incidents were described as “rolled ankle stepping off of road,” “bruised/swollen left second knuckle from crawling,” “rope caught on back, left flank pain and abrasion,” “hit helmet, helmet caused abrasion on head,” and four incidents in which recruits were “exposed/contaminated with pesticide.”
However, Peyton’s mother said last week that she noticed an interesting trend of recruits being dehydrated.
According to the injury report, eight recruits went to the hospital because of “dehydration,” after they “began to experience chest pain, SOB (shortness of breath),” were “feeling light headed,” had “chest pain and difficulty breathing,” “headache and dizziness,” “chest pains and shortness of breath,” or had “heat exhaustion and tightness in chest.”
Their son’s emergency happened after he complained that he could not breathe while he was going through a plywood tunnel — called the “box” — that simulates what a firefighter would experience during a fire.
That day, Peyton went through six air-pack cylinders on his self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA, during training, his parents have said.
He was inside the tunnel, 2½-feet wide and 21 feet in length, while wearing the air pack. Alarms went off on the SCBA that indicated he needed help, the PESH report acknowledged. Instructors have said they did not know he was in trouble.
He was found unresponsive — with the upper half of his body outside of the box — motionless, according to the PESH report.
An autopsy conducted by a Pennsylvania coroner’s office determined the cause of death was anoxic brain injury, cardiac arrest and consequences of physical exertion, although no anatomical or genetic causes for the cardiac arrest were found.
Peyton was completing his third week of training, known as “Hell Week.”
Mrs. Morse also pointed out that Peyton was an experienced firefighter, having volunteered for the LaFargeville Fire Department for seven years and serving as an assistant chief.
Since Peyton’s death, several fire departments across the state will no longer send recruits to the state fire academy.
Last summer, a DeWitt fire recruit fractured his arm when he fell during a training exercise. He attended the fire academy during the next training class after Peyton’s.
The unidentified 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, they said.
The DeWitt recruit got entangled with the ladder and fell. He has since recuperated and is back to work with his department.
DeWitt will not enroll their recruits at the academy. The fire academy now uses a different ladder training exercise.
The Greece Ridge Road Fire Department near Rochester stopped sending recruits after a recruit broke his arm during ladder training and another got an infection.
Greece fire officials have said they lost faith in the training at the academy.
The Morses have called for a boycott of the fire academy.
Chief Timerman also has issues with the report that was released by the state Department of Labor, questioning why it is so heavily redacted.
While he understands that the state cannot release any information that would identify specific recruits, the report was vague and left out information about the type of lesson or activity that the recruit was participating in when the 99 incidents occurred, he said. That information is pertinent, Chief Timerman said, because it would indicate a possible trend about how they occur.
He thinks the report was purposely “over redacted” to keep information about the academy from becoming known.
He’s been critical of the academy, the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control, which oversees the fire academy, and other state officials for not providing information about what happened to his recruit during last March’s training.
As it has done in the past, the state Department of Labor declined to comment, only saying that PESH conducted a thorough investigation and did not cite any violations against the academy.
The department referred questions to the city about the report.
The New York State Police 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.