The San Francisco Fire Department has revealed the circumstances leading to the death of a firefighter during a training exercise last week, noting that restrictions implemented to stem the spread of the coronavirus might have played a role.
Jason Cortez, 42, was knocked off a third-floor fire escape Wednesday by an inadvertent water blast, the report said. He was alone on the fire escape of a training facility at 19th and Folsom streets when he opened the gate of a hose adapter that did not have a hose lined attached, and the stream of water struck him in the chest and pushed him backward.
Although accidental in nature, Cortez’s death could be linked to COVID-19 restrictions, according to the report. His engine company, Station No. 3, was conducting a solo training exercise that typically requires multiple firefighters from two stations.
“Because of COVID 19 concerns, multi-company drills are suspended,” the report said. Engine 3 “was forced to conduct a pump operation drill alone. … Each [firefighter] was required to carry out tasks individually which are normally done as part of a team.”
The San Francisco Fire Department was one of the first in the nation to implement aggressive COVID-19 guidelines in accordance with recommendations from doctors, hazardous-industry specialists and epidemiologists, according to spokesman Lt. Jonathan Baxter. The social distancing measures are meant to ensure the safety of fire crews and the communities they serve.
“We don’t want to cross-pollinate those crews unless we absolutely have to,” Baxter said. “Cross-pollination does occur during actual emergencies, but those are uncontrolled. When we have controlled sessions, such as a training session, we try to limit the exposure as much as possible.”
Baxter said it was likely that those guidelines would be reevaluated in light of Cortez’s death, but he said training and community safety must remain top priorities.
“We can’t put training on hold during COVID-19 because emergencies aren’t going to go on hold,” he said. “We have to be prepared, especially when we have so many new and young firefighters that need to be trained and tested on skill sets. … But one fatality, one injury, is one too many.”
Cortez was a father of two and the son of a retired San Francisco firefighter. He was treated for critical injuries at the scene and transported to San Francisco General Hospital shortly after 10 a.m. Wednesday. He died from his injuries less than an hour later.
Station No. 3, in the Tenderloin neighborhood, is regularly ranked one of the busiest in the country, often with up to 40 calls during a 24-hour shift.
“If you looked at Jason at 3 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning, he had a positive attitude, smile on his face, excellent customer service,” Baxter said. “[He was] just a unique person to be on one of those engine companies, and just a uniquely genuine, nice person.”
According to the report, pressure from the hose could have been as high as 115 pounds per square inch. The San Francisco Police Department and the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health are conducting independent investigations into Cortez’s death.
Several of Cortez’s colleagues accompanied his body in a procession from the hospital to the medical examiner’s office Wednesday. A GoFundMe account set up for his wife and children has already raised more than $240,000.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.