City will sue over Morse’s death

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

WATERTOWN — Watertown Fire Chief Matthew Timerman is expressing indignation that a report leaves the state off the hook in the death of city firefighter Peyton L.S. Morse.

Chief Timerman said he’s “definitely angry and frustrated” that the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau, or PESH, found that the state fire academy did nothing wrong when Mr. Morse suffered a medical emergency during a training exercise there on March 3.

Mr. Morse, 21, died in a Pennsylvania hospital nine days later.

Chief Timerman and Mr. Morse’s parents, David and Stacy, have been critical of the way the New York State Academy of Fire Science handled his training and how his death was being investigated. They believe his death could have been prevented.

Chief Timerman was surprised that PESH did not issue any citations against the fire academy when they told him on Thursday.

“I have a firefighter who died and they couldn’t find anything wrong,” he said.

The chief reiterated that PESH did not want to conduct the investigation to begin with and it was only after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration intervened that PESH decided to do it.

PESH is a state agency that gives occupational safety and health protection to public sector employees and investigates on-the-job injuries and deaths when it involves a public worker.

Chief Timerman received a call from a PESH investigator and his two superiors on Thursday notifying him of the findings and that their report was completed.

He was told that he’d be receiving a copy of the report later this week.

During the phone call, Chief Timerman asked “a lot of questions” about their findings, including whether the young firefighter worked in a safe environment.

He said there “was a lot of silence” on the other end of the phone call. They also told him to reserve judgment until he saw the report.

Chief Timerman said that Mr. Morse’s parents “were more frustrated” than he was after learning that PESH had not issued any citations against the academy.

State police also is investigating. The violent crimes unit with state police Troop E, based in Canandaigua, has been assigned to investigate Mr. Morse’s death. The unit investigates assaults, homicides and other serious crimes.

He described the state police probe as “on-point,” but their investigators have not shared any information about it because that’s how they proceed with their investigations.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, also is conducting an investigation to determine how to prevent similar situations in the future. The NIOSH report could be completed in December, the fire chief said.

Peyton’s medical emergency happened while he was using a Self Contained Breathing Apparatus — or SCBA — during training. It’s been determined that the breathing apparatus was in proper working order. His parents have insisted that he was in excellent health, and they don’t understand why instructors didn’t come to his aid when he started to have trouble breathing.

The young firefighter 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.

Mr. Morse was going through the tunnel that 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.

Fire department officials across the state have become increasingly concerned about the training recruits receive at the academy.

While the academy was not found at fault in any way, PESH will issue two minor citations against the fire department in what Chief Timerman described as paperwork errors that have nothing to do with the young firefighter’s death.

PESH faulted the fire department for not putting a written plan to OSHA in the way it makes sure that its respiratory gear is tested.

The city also failed to divide out in separate spread sheets in employee injuries by department. They have been listed only citywide in the past, he said.

Both citations have been corrected, he said.

A state Labor Department spokeswoman released the following statement about the investigation:

“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.”

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