The city of Wilmington faces a federal lawsuit for allegedly failing to protect three firefighters who died during a Canby Park fire in 2016.
During the day of the fire, there was a fire truck capable of carrying 750 gallons of water parked just a mile away, but it was out of service due to a rolling bypass policy. The policy was implemented by former Wilmington Mayor James Baker in 2009 to save money for the city. As a result, two other engines from twice as far away had to respond to the fire.
Lawyers representing the plaintiffs said that if the fire truck had been working, it would have pumped water into the back of the house where the heart of the fire was located and prevented the floor from collapsing and killing the firefighters.
“All this would have been prevented if the city had let the firefighters do their jobs and get water to the fire scene as quickly as possible,” Thomas S. Neuberger, one of the attorneys in the lawsuit, said.
Firefighters were against the rolling bypass policy from the beginning, including Capt. Richard Lamb. He even made a public announcement in 2010 that the policy would eventually catch up with the firefighters.
Despite criticism that the policy was slowing down response times, the Baker administration told the public “that not only had response times decreased as a result of the rolling bypass, but that response times were within” national health and safety standards.
About a month before the Canby Park fire, Wilmington Fire Department’s uniformed staff fell below 95 percent of the authorized force. However, no new firefighters were hired. On the day of the fire, there were 158 uniformed firefighters, almost 92 percent of the authorized force.
Kevin Turner, president of Willmington’s firefighter’s union, said that Mayor Michael Purzycki’s decision to cut 16 firefighter positions last year made it clear that the city cares more about money than safety.
“Unfortunately the theory of money over safety continues to this day,” Turner said. “Mayor Michael Purzycki and Fire Chief Michael Donohue had an opportunity to turn things around for our department, but they have ignored the needs of our citizens and the needs of our firefighters.”
Purzycki said in a statement that the city will aggressively defend itself in the lawsuit.
“While we continue to be very sad about the loss of our firefighters and the way this incident has affected the entire WFD family, this lawsuit is not an appropriate response to this tragedy,” he said.