Clearwater to assess firefighting procedures
By JENNIFER FARRELL, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- The city will seek a second independent review of its fire department following the June 28 blaze at Dolphin Cove condominiums that killed two elderly residents and badly burned three firefighters.
City Manager Bill Horne announced Wednesday he will hire an outside firefighting expert to assess the department's leadership, tactics and training.
The announcement came one week after the Times published a report detailing numerous violations of the department's own guidelines and failures to follow accepted firefighting practices at Dolphin Cove.
A subsequent Times editorial criticized the city for failing to address critical deficiencies in training and command.
In a written response to the editorial, Horne acknowledged procedural breakdowns at Dolphin Cove and said the city is working to correct them.
Since the fatal fire, Horne wrote, the city has examined equipment that would help get rid of radio interference caused by big buildings. Firefighters also were retrained on command protocols and radio procedures, and complete high-rise training sessions are planned to begin immediately and continue through March 2003, according to Horne.
The second independent review will follow a planned investigation of Dolphin Cove by the U.S. Fire Administration, an arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency whose goal is to reduce fire deaths.
Horne said Wednesday he will look for an expert credible with fire administrators and union leadership. The scope of the review is not yet set, but will address training, staffing and leadership.
"I just want to make sure that the public has no doubts at all in any of those areas," said Horne, adding later: "I'm taking the opportunity to clear the deck, if you will."
The results of the reviews will also serve as a measure of Chief Rowland Herald's performance.
"There are times when you are on the firing line, when people will question your leadership in managing the organization," said Horne. "The chief and I are very clear on that ... Right now, as far as I'm concerned, he's doing a very creditable job, unless information surfaces otherwise."
Herald, who has been fire chief since 1998, was on vacation Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.
Terry Welker, who took over last month as deputy chief, said Wednesday he would not rule out disciplinary action as a result of findings from the reviews.
"We are going to hold people accountable," he said. "However, if we feel people weren't trained properly, then we need to retrain them."
In a report published Oct. 16, the Times found that firefighters -- who took 28 minutes to get water on the fire -- didn't follow fundamental, accepted rules of firefighting and violated their own guidelines at Dolphin Cove. Among the findings:
-- Firefighters failed to follow guidelines to set up a staging area below the fire to outline a game plan and coordinate their attack.
-- They rode elevators directly to the fire, a direct violation of department guidelines. Three were trapped briefly when elevator doors wouldn't open.
-- Accepted practice is for firefighters to tap into the building's standpipe system in the stairwell below the fire, then drag a hose upstairs. Instead, firefighters tapped into another standpipe down the hall from the fire. That pipe had no water; a ground level valve had been turned off.
-- Had firefighters carried a hose up from the stairwell in a lower floor, they could have hit the fire with water in accordance with accepted practices, from the inside out. But at Dolphin Cove, the crew on the fire floor couldn't get water, abandoned firefighting efforts and instead started evacuating residents.
Two veteran fire commanders -- former chiefs from Miami and New York -- studied the department's operations at the newspaper's request and found the tactics so flawed that it raises serious questions about Clearwater's readiness to combat high-rise fires.
Welker said the department is drafting new policies to increase accountability and open up the flow of information. After Dolphin Cove, firefighters refused to answer questions from investigators without their lawyer.
In turn, Herald extended an offer of immunity in exchange for firefighters' cooperation. He later rescinded the offer on the advice of the city attorney.
Clearwater has received four letters of intent to sue after the fire, and the city has issued a gag order for all employees regarding Dolphin Cove.
Meanwhile, the matter has exacerbated an already tense relationship between the city and the union.
Welker said the upcoming reviews will help the department improve.
"We want them to tell us what we need to do better," he said, adding later: "We are really anticipating more deficiencies surfacing. Any time that you have a death, you have to look at why."
-- Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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