Fire raises questions that still await answers
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 7, 2002
We have seen this before: Firefighters racing into a blazing and smoking high-rise building, apparently without fear for their own safety.
This scene was in Clearwater, not New York, but the firefighters who responded to a deadly condominium fire in Island Estates June 28 were no less heroic. Investigators speculate that firefighters who reached the burning fifth floor of the 11-story Dolphin Cove condominium encountered a foe that those in the fire service fear: a flashover, in which gases in the air ignite in a sudden blast of fire and the temperature spikes to more than 1,000 degrees.
Five firefighters were taken to a hospital that morning for injuries that ranged from burns to heat exhaustion. The city was fortunate that no firefighters were killed.
But that was about the only thing that went well that morning. Two residents died. The lives of some 150 other residents were put at risk because a series of delays and an unlucky convergence of incidents ratcheted up the danger:
The fifth-floor resident awakened by fire in his kitchen about 5:10 a.m. tried to fight the fire rather than calling 911 immediately and evacuating the building. He used towels, fire extinguishers and finally, with the help of another resident, wall-mounted fire hoses in the hallway. None put out the fire. It wasn't until 12 minutes later that the 911 call was placed. When firefighters arrived, flames were shooting out the balcony of the burning unit and up four floors and residents were at their windows screaming for rescue.
A lack of water was a hindrance. A nearby fire hydrant was broken, but firefighters didn't know that and wasted valuable time trying to get water from it. A water pipe inside the condominium tower that was supposed to supply water for firefighters also had no water in it.
The broken fire hydrant had been discovered by a city water department employee four days before the fire. While he reported the broken hydrant to his department, he didn't mark the hydrant with the required yellow tag identifying it as out of service because he didn't have the tags in his truck. Replacement of the broken hydrant was not considered an emergency, so no one got around to it before the fire broke out June 28.
The condominium, built in 1974, had no sprinkler system. A new state law requires retrofitting of such buildings, but gives owners 12 years to comply. Dolphin Cove had just begun planning for the work.
Residents reported that the building had no evacuation plan, even though some residents were senior citizens who would need assistance.
Automatic door closers that were supposed to close doors to stairwells malfunctioned and allowed stairwells to fill with smoke.
These are good reasons to ask probing questions about what happened at Dolphin Cove that morning. The purpose is not necessarily to assign blame, but to ensure that everything possible is done to prevent a similar situation at another of Clearwater's high-rise buildings.
Residents who live or work in those buildings need to be informed and reassured, but will they be? While some confusion and miscommunication are understandable during the firefight, it is troubling that nine days later there is not more clarity about what happened and why. The accounts of witnesses in some cases don't match those of fire officials, and various city employees' statements have conflicted with each other. City officials have been reluctant to offer information, which raises more questions.
A city investigation is under way, but there may be difficulty getting the answers now because the firefighters union has chosen to play hardball. Union chief John Lee demanded that firefighters be represented by attorneys while being questioned about the fire.
State law gives firefighters the right to representation when they are being interrogated on matters that might lead to discipline. But that is not the purpose of the current investigation, which will determine the cause of the fire and create a timeline of events. Clearwater fire Chief Rowland Herald said a demand for representation during this type of investigation is unprecedented. It is almost certain to slow the search for answers. Indeed, firefighters may be prevented by their attorneys from answering some of the most crucial questions. It is hard to understand why the union would want to be an obstacle to getting all information that could save lives.
Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne, who was out of town when the fire occurred, has been quiet in recent days. This is a time when he needs to be visible. Too much went wrong in the Dolphin Cove fire. Some of it was not the city's responsibility; for example, the private parties that manage and maintain Dolphin Cove were responsible for the functioning of interior water pipes. But who was responsible doesn't matter nearly as much as fixing the problems.
Last week the city adopted a new policy requiring repair or replacement of broken hydrants within 24 hours and streamlining procedures for notifying the Fire Department of hydrant problems. That was a good first step. The city also should examine whether to increase the frequency and thoroughness of hydrant and building inspections.
The city can make another valuable contribution by teaching high-rise building residents and managers when to call 911, how to design safe evacuation plans and how to maintain their internal water systems used for firefighting.
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