National group meets in SA to discuss prevention of firefighter deaths

Father who lost son in fire proud to see consistent protocol updates

SAN ANTONIO - – Kevin Woyjeck, 21, was one of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters killed while trapped in a fire in Arizona in 2013.

Released in 2017, a movie called “Only the Brave” highlighted the men’s bravery, making Woyjecks father especially proud.

“Kevin was the ninth firefighter in our family. I retired from Los Angeles County Fire Department after 37 years, and he was following in my footsteps,” said Joe Woyjeck, Kevin Woyjecks father.

That’s why Joe knows the true importance of firefighter safety protocols.

Reports show so far in 2022, there have been 70 line-of-duty deaths in the U.S. There were 141 deaths in 2021.

In 2004, agencies across the country convened with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and created 16 life safety initiatives.

“Things like crew management, accountability, ventilation, things like that to where we need to make sure that we’re fighting the fire in the most correct way,” said San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood.

Chief Hood was honored Monday as San Antonio hosted the group’s first conference since 2014.

“One of our keynotes is a fire chief in Sussex in England; we have people here from Iran, we have people from all over this nation,” Hood said.

The three-day event is a chance to review and update firefighter safety protocols.

“The major causes of those firefighter deaths are COVID, cancer, and cardiac,” said Victor Stagnaro, the NFFF Director.

Stagnaro said the focus right now is on cancer and mental health.

“There’s a recent law that recognizes the post-traumatic stress that firefighters go through, and recognizes that sometimes firefighters die by suicide and it’s job-related,” he said.

When it comes to cancer, leaders are talking about how to reduce exposure. Meaning proper ventilation and shedding soot-ridden clothing as quickly as possible, and showering off, according to previous KSAT reports.

Initiative number one speaks to the firefighter culture, calling for a healthier general mindset.

“We want to go in there and fight fires aggressively, go in and search for people who who may be trapped in an incident. But science has taught us new ways about how we fight fires,” Stagnaro said. “We have learned that going in and getting right next to the fire isn’t necessarily always the most effective way to put out a fire.”

Part of the keynote presentation was on decision-making.

“We know that probably 80% of firefighter injuries on an incident are human error. How do we address those factors to really bring down the numbers?” Stagnaro said.

“We have really good equipment. We have really good procedures and policies, things like that. But the human element of firefighting, how can we make a firefighter safer by making sure that they make the right decisions at a critical point in time?” Chief Hood added.

Some of the initiatives don’t have much to do with the firefighters themselves.

Initiatives 14 and 15 cover code enforcement, like fire alarms and sprinklers in homes and buildings.

“If firefighters don’t have to respond to an incident, they’re not going to die,” Stagnaro said.

Stagnaro and Hood both mentioned the rise in the number and severity of fires.

They said there had been significant increases in wildfires, like the one that killed Kevin almost a decade ago.

“80% of the firefighters that are responding to wildland fires are structural firefighters. They don’t have the training,” Stagnaro said.

He said it’s vice versa too. The wildland firefighters are often detailed or sent to an incident where they’re asked to protect structures. The firefighters are trained to put out fires in the wildland where no structures exist.

“The wildland fire service and the structural fire service need to come together, do better training together,” Stagnaro said.

All of these situations will be mulled over at length over the next three days, by the best in the business.

It’s something that brings Woyjecks father comfort.

“It’s the fact that there’s progress, that they’re moving forward in so many different directions. And it’s not just people talking about it that it’s actually being done right,” Joe said.

A feeling of peace, knowing fewer members of the greater firefighting family will have their names on plaques beside his son’s.

In honor of their son, Joe and his wife created a nonprofit called the Kevin Woyjeck Explorers for Life Association.

“We donate to young firefighters, fire explorers in their pursuit of becoming first responders. It’s been a great way for our family to give back. To date, we’ve donated about $450,000 in scholarships and equipment across the United States,” Joe said.

He said anyone with an Explorer program or cadet program who would like assistance should contact him.

Also on KSAT

About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.

Before starting at KSAT in August 2011, Ken was a news photographer at KENS. Before that he was a news photographer at KVDA TV in San Antonio. Ken graduated from San Antonio College with an associate's degree in Radio, TV and Film. Ken has won a Sun Coast Emmy and four Lone Star Emmys. Ken has been in the TV industry since 1994.