Lawmakers still chasing reforms after tragic 2014 fire

Boston Statehouse
Boston firefighters Edward Walsh and Michael Kennedy, who died in a 2014 fire

Boston firefighters Edward Walsh and Michael Kennedy, who died in a 2014 fire. (photos courtesy Boston Fire Department)

BOSTON (State House News Service)–Reforms for cutting, welding, and hot work that stem from the death of two Boston firefighters seven years ago were again at the forefront of a legislative hearing Monday with first responders saying legislation is needed to prevent further deaths and hold violating companies accountable.

A Sen. Nick Collins bill (S 1554) would implement recommendations from a special commission created and named after Boston firefighters Edward Walsh and Michael Kennedy, who died in a 2014 fire reportedly caused by welders working on a building next door to a brownstone in the Back Bay.

Walsh and Kennedy were trapped in the basement of the building as winds helped fan a nine-alarm fire at 298 Beacon Street. A Boston fire investigation found that an unpermitted and improper welding operation started the blaze, according to local media reports.

The commission was tasked with determining whether the state fire code adequately protected public safety and first responders as it relates to the hot work trades, including any procedures that may cause sparks or fires. The panel was required to report out their findings by June 1, 2015 on licensing and permitting conditions, the effect of penalties associated with violating rules, and recovery costs in cases stemming from failure to follow regulations, among other things.

“Some of the things that I think, beyond the fines, that we really need to think about and some other states do have that we don’t, is defining criminal negligence and creating a pathway to hold violators criminally liable for their actions,” Collins said during a Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee hearing.

Collins’ bill would increase fines and penalties for failing to follow regulations like pulling permits and require certifications and training programs for cutting, welding, and hot works to follow the National Fire Protection Association program. The Boston Democrat filed a similar bill last session that received a favorable report by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee but stalled out in Senate Ways and Means.

Boston Fire Department Commissioner John Dempsey said current fines and penalties for violating cutting, welding, or hot work regulations are “not even a slap on the wrist.” He said the state needs to implement an initial fine that gets the attention of violators and then institute increasing penalties for second or third offenses. “The fines are so minimal that smaller companies, if they roll the dice, the fine is so little, if they get caught it’s cheaper to pay the fine than it is to hire a firewatch or or maybe even pull permit,” he said. “So I believe by increasing the fines, this will get their attention.”

Rep. Steven Xiarhos said Kennedy was a personal friend who was there for him when his son, a Marine, was killed in combat. “So on a personal level, we know what it’s like to lose a child and the damage it does to the family,” he said. “To the Walsh family, the Kennedy family, let them know we support them. And to the firefighters, God bless you guys and women.”

Michael O’Reilly, legislative agent for Boston Firefighters Local 718, said as long as it’s cheaper to pay the fine “than it is to do the right thing, we have potential to see tragedies like this happen again.” “The big key for us is the penalty has to be stiff,” he said. “The fine can’t be cheaper and we got to hold these cutting, welding firms, these contractors accountable.”

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