FRISCO — It’s been more than two months since Summit Fire & EMS firefighter Ken Jones fell to his death while fighting a blaze in Copper Mountain, though the feelings of grief are still fresh for his second family at the fire department.
Jones’ picture still stands on a table in the entranceway of Summit Fire’s administration building in Frisco — the first thing visitors see on their way into the building each morning. Inside, firefighters and staff go about their business as usual, though many now bear a special “KJ” button pinned to their jackets or shirts as a reminder of his sacrifice. And while there has been a subtle shift back to relative normalcy, at least as far as the job is concerned, the memories of Jones still seem to permeate daily conversations among those who knew him.
“Our crews are professionals,” Summit Fire spokesperson Steve Lipsher said. “Whether it was the next day or the next week, whenever they came back on duty, they were doing their jobs as they’re supposed to be done — saving lives, doing all the things they’ve been trained to do forever, as difficult and emotionally raw as things were at the time.
“As time has passed, certainly some of that rawness has faded. But people still talk. People are still reminding each other daily about safety, and they’re wearing their Ken Jones buttons. This is not something that will fade from memory. Things do return to normal, but you also never forget.”
For officials with Summit Fire, remembering is only half the battle. As the organization continues to seek answers into how Jones’ tragic fall occurred and what steps could have been taken to prevent it, making sure lessons are learned will put minds at ease.
Looking back at the accident
New details have emerged into the circumstances surrounding Jones’ death over recent weeks, following an internal investigation by Summit Fire that’s already providing insight into future changes coming to the department’s standard-operating guidelines.
At about 2 a.m. Dec. 7, a four-person crew arrived at the Bridge End condominium building in Copper Mountain. The crew quickly evacuated the building and did a “hot lap” around the structure to look for flames and assess the situation.
According to Chief Jeff Berino, a chimney fire originated from deep inside the building and wasn’t easily accessible to firefighters. The complex has three chimney chases on the roof — essentially structures that bring together smaller chimneys and direct smoke for about eight fireplaces in units below.
After the fire, the department asked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to investigate the cause of the blaze. According to the Bureau’s investigation, there were no spark arrestors on the chimneys, just 6-to-8-inch holes that lead back down to fireplaces. Sparks from one fireplace apparently hit a metal chimney cap and fell back down, causing a fire inside the chimney chase.
Summit Fire emphasized the Bridge End management team wasn’t at fault. The structure met building code standards during construction in the 1970s, but more restrictive chimney safety standards are now required under current codes to prevent such accidents.
Adding to the difficulty was the fire’s location on the roof, which was inaccessible to the fire engine.
“It wasn’t a fire where you can kick in a door, and it was right there,” Berino said. “It was in a very hard to get to location. We were hampered. Our ladder truck couldn’t reach where the fire was. … As a chief, I’d love to say nobody goes on a roof anymore. Firefighters fall through, or in our case, fall off. They’re extremely hazardous. But firefighting will never be easy or completely safe. We have to access roofs when completely necessary. In this case it was.”
Jones was assigned to find viable roof access to the chimney chase. With the help of building management, he located a hatch to the roof and went out alone on the east side of the building, across the roof from the western most chase that was on fire. He requested a fire extinguisher and a hose line, and he began making his way to the blaze as soon as he got the extinguisher. In addition to the extinguisher, Jones also was carrying an axe and 30-plus pounds of regular gear. Given the weather and the time of night, along with subsequent drone footage that showed Jones’ footsteps on the roof the next day, Berino said it’s likely he slipped on an unseen sheet of ice.
Jones fell about 35 feet onto a lower roof of the structure. An immediate rescue operation was launched, and emergency medical care was administered, though he’s believed to have died on impact due to “multiple nonsurvivable traumatic injuries,” according to Berino.
Another fire crew arrived shortly thereafter and was able to punch its way through a skylight in the roof to put out the fire. Ultimately, the blaze was confined to one condo unit and the chimney chase. Summit Fire crews were sent home, and crews from the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District and Eagle County stepped in to take over operations.
According to Summit Fire’s internal investigation into the incident, none of the department’s standard-operating guidelines were violated during the operation, and Berino noted it’s extremely unlikely Jones acted negligently in any way. Witnesses on scene reported seeing Jones crouched on the roof and taking his time.
“Ken did not violate any written standard-operating guidelines, nor can we determine he acted in any reckless manner,” Berino said. “He was very methodical. He didn’t have a cavalier attitude. Some of our younger guys we need to temper a bit. … We can never guess what was going through his mind, but Ken had a reason for doing what he was doing. He was an analytical person and a thinker.”
After the accident, Summit Fire reached out to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to request another third-party investigation. The group has investigated about 40% of all American firefighter deaths since 1998 and is expected to publish a report on the incident sometime later this year in hopes of identifying any operational failures as well as pushing new information and recommendations to fire departments across the country.
Internally, Summit Fire is already working to update its standard-operating guidelines to better address cases like Jones’. Berino said that while the department has guidelines for operating on high or midrise buildings, it doesn’t have anything in the books for general roof operations. Summit Fire is working with the national safety institute to develop new guidelines, which could include things like tethers or requiring partners in those situations, among other possibilities.
“Our lesson learned is we’re going to develop a roof (standard-operating guideline),” Berino said. “It’s particularly difficult because one size doesn’t fit all. Some roofs are flat or have steep pitches, and there are different types of construction with shakes, asphalt or metal. It’s not as easy as it sounds, and every fire is different. We’ll endeavor to come up with something that’s applicable for us in this weather and that could cover all of these scenarios.”
Berino also said the department has identified a need to improve its “crew resource management,” essentially more training to enhance the way in which firefighters work together to identify hazards in the field, point them out to one another and overcome them.
“The big thing is that while there were no violations, clearly this is something that we wish had never happened and that we want to ensure never happens again,” Lipsher said.
Continuing to heal
For firefighters and staff at Summit Fire & EMS, the healing process is ongoing.
For those who were close to Jones, the knowledge that his family is being taken care of financially helps to ease the burden. In addition to life insurance, workers’ compensation and federal public safety officers benefit programs, community members and organizations around the country have stepped up to lend their support. The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation has agreed to pay off the mortgage on the Jones family’s home, and The Summit Foundation helped to raise more than $70,000 in additional funds. And the donations are still coming in.
“I’ve written almost 400 thank-you notes,” Berino said. “We’re still getting cards and donations. It was extremely difficult for me to write all those, but I felt they needed to be acknowledged. … I just want to thank everyone for the love and support from our community and across the country. While we were in that fog, it just meant so much.”
Several firefighters and their significant others also have taken the opportunity to work with Building Warriors, a nonprofit group that provides counseling and support to emergency responders and their families who have faced traumatic experiences.
Though, for most, the best therapy is getting back to the job and committing themselves to helping the community.
“After the accident, we told our crews, ‘You can take off as much time as you need to get your head in the game,’” Berino said. “After a set, just two days off, they all came back. And I said, ‘why?’
“They told me that getting out there and helping the community is what’s helping them — that helping people gave them a way to get back to their lives and to get their heads on right instead of sitting at home. They wanted to get back to their second family.”