Probe of city firefighter’s death getting new help

Late Watertown firefighter Peyton Morse’s turnout gear sits outside the city fire station on South Massey Street during a memorial ceremony. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie and Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk are requesting an internal investigation into what led up to the death of city firefighter Peyton L.S. Morse, who died after having a medical emergency while training at the state fire academy last March.

The two state lawmakers sent a letter to Patrick A. Murphy, commissioner of the state’s Homeland Security and Emergency Services, requesting that the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control, or OFPC, conduct the internal investigation into the firefighter’s death.

In the Aug. 18 letter, Sen. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and Assemblyman Walczyk, R-Watertown, urged the OFPC to fully cooperate in a series of investigations that are underway into how Mr. Morse died.

“I’m so sorry for the loss of Peyton and so embarrassed by the lack of empathy the state has shown this grieving family,” Assemblyman Walczyk wrote in a press statement on Tuesday.

The two lawmakers insist that family members are entitled to answers as to the cause and contributing factors leading to his death.

“In an effort to provide closure and answers to those impacted by the loss of firefighter Morse, we respectfully request you release the details surrounding this incident and any investigation that your division may have conducted,” they wrote in the letter.

More than 40 fire chiefs, or almost all of them serving in Jefferson County, also signed the letter to Commissioner Murphy.

Mr. Morse, 21, suffered a medical emergency while using a Self Contained Breathing Apparatus — or SCBA — during training at the New York State Academy of Fire Science on March 3.

The state police, Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are conducting separate investigations.

State Homeland Security and Commissioner Murphy oversee the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control. PESH is a state agency that gives occupational safety and health protection to public sector employees, while NIOSH is looking at how to prevent the incident involving the young recruit from happening again.

After sending the letter, the two lawmakers discussed the incident during a phone call with Commissioner Murphy.

“He is now fully aware that we stand in solidarity with Peyton’s family and we will not rest until there is justice,” Assemblyman Walczyk said in a prepared statement. “We will not stop until the state fire academy makes changes that ensure this never happens to another trainee. We will not relent until Peyton’s memory is honored.”

Sen. Ritchie said the loss of the young firefighter has hit the family and the community hard, so they deserve answers in what led to his death.

“It remains critical that we get answers regarding the series of events that led to the loss of Peyton, so we can ensure something like this never happens again,” she said in a prepared statement.

The two state lawmakers sent the letter to Mr. Murphy after City Fire Chief Matthew Timerman expressed frustration about how PESH was conducting its investigation into the incident and how the state was treating the situation, describing the process as “horrendous.”

It’s the first time anyone representing the state has come forward to lend support.

“It’s getting somebody in your corner finally, and shaking the tree and saying what’s going on,” Chief Timerman said. “It’s particularly uplifting that it was signed by 40 of your peers.”

In late July, Chief Timerman sent a letter to acting state fire administrator James Cable, who oversees the state fire academy, urging the state to stop “stonewalling” the investigation and provide answers to what happened.

Chief Timerman said he grew frustrated after learning that Mr. Morse’s death was ruled the result of natural causes. He also accused state lawyers of telling academy staff not to cooperate with the investigations.

The Bradford County Coroner’s Office has determined the cause of death was an anoxic brain injury (lack of oxygen to the brain), cardiac arrest and consequences of physical exertion while using the breathing apparatus.

Chief Timerman doesn’t know how a young, healthy firefighter could have died if the apparatus was working. NIOSH has determined that the breathing apparatus in Mr. Morse’s air pack was “in good mechanical order.”

Since the incident, Chief Timerman has informally spoken to between 30 and 40 fire chiefs from across the state, some of whom told him that they heard recruits might have been treated inappropriately at the fire academy in the past.

Recruits might have been the victims of hazing, verbal abuse or inappropriate physical interaction, he fears. He has also obtained documents about what other recruits witnessed the day Mr. Morse became unresponsive.

Several career fire departments in Monroe County decided to put together its own training program with 26 recruits as a result of what happened with Mr. Morse.

They also immediately pulled their recruits out of the state academy after the incident in March.

Greece Ridge Fire Chief Steven Johnson said their four recruits who attended the state academy were interviewed by PESH, NIOSH and state investigators that Mr. Morse’s family hired and one from the city.

He hasn’t heard anything since then about the PESH investigation and is pessimistic about its findings.

“I don’t expect much,” he said.

After talking to Chief Timerman, Gates Fire Chief Alan Bubel also sent a letter to the state expressing his concerns that the state makes sure that a similar incident doesn’t reoccur.

“That could have been one of my recruits,” he said, stressing that the family and the Watertown Fire Department deserve answers.

Mr. Morse was inside a 20-foot-long tunnel made of plywood while wearing an air pack and a mask covered with tape when the incident occurred.

He was going through the tunnel, which simulates what a firefighter would experience during a fire. Alarms on the self-contained breathing apparatus went off before the firefighter was found not breathing.

In July, a Homeland Security spokesman denied that the state was stonewalling the investigation, saying that OFPC was cooperating fully with the investigations.

The spokesman said then that Homeland Security would not comment further until the investigations were completed.

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