The firefighter who used to brave flames is now afraid of air.
In crowded rooms, he is convinced all the other people will use up the oxygen until he’s gasping for breath – like he felt in a smoke-filled room eight months ago.
After being trapped alone in a room while responding to a house fire Jan. 18, Augusta firefighter Steven Jenne said he has been diagnosed with reactive airway disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. He also now deals with depression.
Jenne and fire union representatives say broken protocol is to blame and a lack of follow-up investigation by the department is covering it up.
Augusta Professional Firefighters Vice President Charles Masters said the incident is part of a larger problem with the competency of the fire department.
“The day after this incident happened, there should have been an immediate safety review and investigation into this firefighter’s injury, but instead, this department chose to sweep it under the rug.”
In response to an open-records request by The Augusta Chronicle, the fire department provided a fire report and the investigation into the cause, but not an investigation into Jenne’s injuries.
On Monday, Masters called for an investigation into Jenne’s case through an e-mail to Deputy Administrator Bill Shanahan.
Shanahan did not respond to phone calls from The Chronicle requesting a comment.
According to the National Fire Protection Association standard 1500 clause 4.4.5, “All accidents, near misses, injuries, fatalities, occupational illnesses, and exposures involving members shall be investigated.”
Ken Willette, the manager of the association’s Public Fire Protection Division, said that while this regulation is a recommended practice and not law, fire departments are expected to keep track of such information to improve procedures and prevent injuries.
Battalion Chief John Sheridan, who was the incident commander on the scene, said the investigation is ongoing and is being conducted by Shanahan.
But after eight months, Jenne, 49, said he has not been interviewed or alerted to any type of follow-up investigation.
“The more severe (incidents) are, the longer the investigations can be drawn out,” Sheridan said. “Depending on the situation and what we have going on … it can actually be drawn out. This firefighter is not going to fall through the gaps or nothing like that.”
What Jenne said happened inside the house on Dearborn Street, however, is not reflected in the fire report, which Masters said is falsified.
The fire department arrived at the scene, where smoke was coming from the home, around 1:40 p.m.
According to the fire investigation report, clothing lying on a mattress had caught fire after an electric blanket had shorted out and sparked.
At the time of the fire, a collection of ammunition stored in the bedroom was also exploding, the report said.
What happened next is in dispute.
Jenne said Sheridan instructed him to enter the house alone with only a hand extinguisher, as the homeowner told the responders he had already extinguished the fire.
When Jenne realized things were getting out of control despite the extinguisher, he returned to the truck for a hose and assistance. He then entered the room again with the hose and two other firefighters.
When the ammunition began exploding, the crew was told to exit the home, but Jenne said he lost sight of the doorway and was left alone in the smoky room, where he couldn’t see in front of him despite two hand lights.
Without a radio, he was unable to call for help, and his absence was not accounted for, he said. Jenne said he activated his Personal Alert Safety System Device, which sounds an alarm to alert that a firefighter is in distress, but no one came to his rescue.
From outside the house, firefighters broke a window to try to kill the fire, Jenne said. When he saw the window, Jenne lifted himself through and fell to the ground.
“He’s lost, nobody knows he’s lost, nobody followed protocol, they go around the house by accident and there (Jenne) is,” Masters said. “That, in today’s profession, is unheard of.”
Jenne said firefighters removed his gear and prepared him to get into a Gold Cross ambulance at the scene. It’s then, he said, that Sheridan directed the men to wait for the department’s Engine One ambulance to arrive and transport him instead.
From the wording in the fire report prepared by Sheridan, it was Engine 8’s crew, not Jenne alone, who entered the house and attacked the fire.
Sheridan said he stands by the information in the report. He also explained that officers who prepare the report do so quickly in general terms so the homeowner can submit it to the insurance company.
“Those (details) were put in there in the most general terms,” he said.
Since the accident, Jenne’s wife, Tammy, said her husband is a shell of what he used to be.
After eight months of leave on continued salary, Jenne returned to light duty Wednesday. Although the fire department got clearance from Jenne’s pulmonologist, Jenne said he never consulted with the doctor about returning to work.
Tammy Jenne said the man who used to work two jobs, volunteer with Boy Scouts, play with his grandchildren and run errands is now almost afraid to go outside his home.
The couple now sits in the back pew at church, because it’s close to the exit, in case of a panic attack. At home, Jenne keeps the air conditioner on 60 degrees and the fan blowing so he doesn’t feel like air is being taken away.
He sleepwalks in the middle of the night and doesn’t realize he is out of bed, Tammy Jenne said.
“Everything has changed for us,” she said. “I have to call and check on him what feels like 100 times a day. He came out of that fire, and he’s completely different.”
Jenne said he doesn’t believe he’ll ever be able to be a working firefighter again. But he understands that risks come with the job.
What he doesn’t understand is how his situation was handled.
“This is about what’s wrong, and nobody’s done anything,” Jenne said.