November 29th, 2020


Firefighter who tried to save elderly woman from burning house is suspended without pay

Teo Armus

By Teo Armus The Washington Post

Published Feb. 13, 2020

Firefighter who tried to save elderly woman from burning house is suspended without pay
Capt. Daniel Dwyer, of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department, was suspended without pay over the incident.
When Daniel Dwyer saw flames taking over the wooden-frame house, he made a split-second decision to act.

Other firefighters on his search team were still rushing to the late-night blaze in Atlanta last June, but the flames were only getting stronger. So Dwyer broke down the front door, pulling out a 95-year-old woman who had been trapped inside. She died soon after from her injuries.

Eight months later, however, Dwyer's actions that night have gotten him suspended from his job without pay, according to local TV stations, because the fire captain failed to follow protocol when he ventured inside by himself.

"Firefighting is an extremely dangerous job," Atlanta Fire Chief Randall Slaughter told a group of city lawmakers on Tuesday. Although rushing into a blaze alone may seem "courageous and commendable," that person can also jeopardize other firefighters if they get trapped, he said.

The disciplinary rebuke against Dwyer has nonetheless provoked anger among firefighters in Atlanta and beyond, as many of them questioned why Dwyer is being punished rather than praised for what they see as an act of heroism.

The woman caught in the fire, Sallie Skrine, lived in the northwest Collier Heights neighborhood, one of the first in the country created by black urban planners for black middle-class residents.

Skrine was a big-hearted matriarch and a "pillar of her community," family members told WBNS last June, and in the basement of her one-story home, the woman known to most as Ms. Sallie operated a food pantry for residents in need.

In the early-morning hours of June 27, 2019, a fire started in her house on Collier Drive, likely in the kitchen. One of the burners on the stove had been left on, officials told WAGA, and had probably started the blaze.

When Dwyer arrived on the scene around 1 a.m., a team of firefighters was trying to fight the blaze with water while Skrine was in the dining room. The house had burglar bars installed on the windows, and officials say the woman may have been trying to escape when Dwyer broke down the front door.

He pulled her out of the blaze and onto her porch, as other firefighters joined him to carry her down away from the house. Despite their efforts, Skrine died from her injuries.

Video of the blaze provided obtained by local news outlets shows Dwyer pulling Skrine through the front door and onto her porch, where his fellow firefighters help carry her down the steps onto the curb.

That seemed to be the end of the story - at least, in public - until this week, when WXIA reported on Dwyer's upcoming suspension.

A notice of final action obtained by the TV station said that Dwyer will be suspended without pay for a period of four days, until Feb. 19, because the fire captain broke protocol when he entered the house and attempted to rescue Skrine.

"You entered the structure without your crew members," the document said, "which is in immediate conflict with no freelancing, accountability and maintaining crew integrity."

In a Tuesday statement to local media outlets, Slaughter declined to comment on the specifics of Dwyer's individual disciplinary case, noting that it "would be inappropriate to publicly discuss" a situation that has "not been totally resolved."

Dwyer can appeal his decision, local media reported, although that process can take up to several years. A spokesperson for the department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.

"The disciplinary process for the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department is designed to encourage safety and order," Slaughter said. "It also seeks to establish clear expectations in both emergency and non-emergency situations."

But the local firefighters' union, the Atlanta Professional Firefighters Local 134, slammed the decision, arguing that Dwyer's actions that June night should receive only praise.

"When the men and women in the station hear that fire captains are going to be punished for acts of valor, it just goes against in which anything a firefighter swears an oath to uphold," Paul Gerdis, the head of the union, told WAGA.

And in some sense, Gerdis added, the suspension is almost akin to rubbing salt in the wounds left from the June blaze. Besides the "guilt of not being able to save this homeowner," he said, the unpaid suspension will also create a financial burden for Dwyer and his family.

On social media, the union seemed to take on a darkly ironic tone.

"Tragic event when a firefighter upholds his oath to risk his life for a citizen he has never met," the union wrote on Facebook. "The passing of Ms Sallie is heartbreaking. Our hearts go out to her family and community. We can promise the Citizens of Atlanta that we will always come for you."

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