A national occupational safety organization has released its report on the 2019 line-of-duty death of Berwick Fire Captain Joel Barnes.

Who Issued the Report?

The Berwick Fire Department responded to a fire in a three-story apartment house on March 1st, 2019. As a result of that operation, Captain Barnes died in the line of duty and four other firefighters were injured. Barnes was just 32-years-old.

An investigation into the circumstances of the fire was conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. This federal agency conducts research and makes recommendations for the prevention of work-related injury and death. The report into Captain Barnes death was released earlier this month.

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The initial call to 9-1-1 came from an occupant of the building who was trapped in a 3rd floor bathroom. Captain Barnes, 2 firefighters, and the driver/operator of the firetruck were the first to arrive on the scene. They reported heavy smoke showing from the rear of the building and Captain Barnes requested a 2nd alarm, which would bring in more firefighters. He then advised the regional communications center that he and a firefighter were going to go into the building with a hose line to perform a primary search for the trapped person. He told the other firefighter to get a ground ladder to the 3rd floor bathroom window, where the tenant was trapped. A Police Officer put the ladder in place and the occupant was able to get out the window and climb down the ladder.

When Did Things Start to Go Wrong?

The police officer notified the Regional Communications Center (RCC) that the tenant was out of the building, roughly 5 minutes after the fire crew arrived at the scene. However, the information was delayed in reaching Captain Barnes because it was transmitted over the radio on a police channel, rather than a fire channel. By the time it reached the pair, they were already on the third floor. Barnes and the firefighter had left the hose line on the second floor in order to better search for the 3rd floor tenant that they didn't realize, at that point, was already out of the building.

When the pair was unable to get into a 3rd floor apartment because of the fire, they tried to back out of the structure, but became trapped by fire traveling up the stairwell. They made their way towards the back of the building and into the fire apartment where Captain Barnes reportedly threw himself on top of the firefighter, as conditions worsened.

How Did the Firefighter With Captain Barnes Escape the Building?

Just seven minutes after arriving on the scene, the Captain called a Mayday, which was not acknowledged by anyone on the ground or by the RCC. Within a couple of minutes, a mutual aid company arrived on the scene and the Lieutenant called a Mayday when he realized Barnes and the firefighter were missing. Firefighters attacked the fire on one side of the building and placed a ground ladder to the third floor. This enabled the missing firefighter to climb down, less than 20 minutes after he arrived at the scene. Captain Barnes was located and was on the ground ten minutes later. EMS crews worked on him and he was transported to a trauma hospital but succumbed to his injuries shortly after his arrival.

Captain Joel Barnes was a paramedic and was the training officer and emergency medical services coordinator for Berwick. He had previously worked for a department in South Carolina, as well as several others in Maine. Our condolences to his friends and family and to the public safety community, at large.

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