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Riverside blaze claims infant's life, raises questions about fire company closures

WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley

A six-month-old infant boy died in an overnight fire in Buffalo's Riverside neighborhood. The deadly blaze has raised questions about city closures of fire companies under what the union calls a new staffing policy.

Firefighters responded to a two-alarm blaze at 367 Riverside Avenue just before at 2:44 a.m. Tuesday. By the time the first fire company arrived just three minutes later, a mother, father and the child had already evacuated. Attempts to revive the child, identified as Savior Lopez, were unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Women and Children's Hospital.

Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield reaches out to family & friends at the fire scene to extend his condolences

The parents suffered non-life threatening injuries and declined treatment at the scene. The cause of the fire, which affected two neighboring houses, is under investigation. Fire officials say the blaze started on the first floor.

Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield extend his sympathies to family members

The fire is raising questions about a nearby fire company that was closed last night. The Buffalo Professional Firefighters Union Local 282 says on its Facebook page Ladder 13 on Hertel Avenue, not far from the scene, was closed by the city after five firefighters reported out sick for their shift. The union says under the recently-agreed to contract with the city, City Hall has the right to close a company under those circumstances. 

Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield, in a statement issues late Tuesday, Whitfield clarified, that the Hertel Avenue Firehouse was not closed, but Ladder 13, which is also housed at that location, was out of service for the evening.

Whitfield speaking to reporters at the scene Tuesday, said it's not unusual for a city company to be closed on any given day.

Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Scene of fatal fire on Riverside Avenue

"For different reasons, fire companies are out of service on a daily basis in the City of Buffalo. Whether its for EMT training where they would be there all day, whether it's for other kinds of training where we have to send them out to Cheektowaga to the training bureau, whether it's for PMI, maintenance, mechanical reasons, fire companies are out of service on a daily basis in the City of Buffalo," Whitfield says.

Whitfield says response time was not an issue in the overnight blaze and operations at the scene went "very well.". He says the union agreed to a contract with the city that was widely supported.

"First and foremost, over and above any agreement with the union is the safety of the residents of this community and the members of this department," Whitfield says.

"Every fire is different. Every fire is fluid. We adapt. That's what we do," he added.

Asked whether any changes will be made following last night's fire, Whitfield said "we make changes every day."

Engine 26-arrived just three minutes after the call. But union president Daniel Cunnigham tells WBFO News the search and rescue was performed by the baby's parents and that's an issue.

"They did that on their own without any support because truck 13 would have been there providing that service of search and rescue.  The distance between the truck 13 and truck 4 -- which then was the first truck -- is 2 and a half to three miles. So it takes longer for truck 4 to get there," said Cunningham.

Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Scene of fatal fire on Riverside Avenue

Cunningham said the city insisted on the staffing policy in order to save$2 to $3-million in overtime costs and decides each day which company to shut down.

"Yes we did agree to this clause and the city said they would use it when they needed to save money.  What they are doing is using it on a daily basis to reduce the cost of the fire department, reduce overtime," said Cunningham.

Cunningham blames manpower shortage and lack of promotions for staffing issues.  Cunningham says just eight days into the new contract the union has already filed  a grievance against the city. 

Tuesday the city put Ladder 10 at Seneca and Southside out of service for the day under the new staffing policy.

Still Commissioner Whitfield says the loss in any fire is taken "very personally" and "very seriously."

"You know we never want to lose anybody.  We are here to help and make a difference in peoples lives," said Whitfield.