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Watch: Florida fire chief defends captain first on the scene of controversial fatal fire

Polk County press conference provided little clarity. 911 changes protocols.

Polk County Fire Rescue officials speaking about fire that killed 76-year-old Loretta Pickard on Nov. 23

Posted by The Ledger on Wednesday, February 13, 2019

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911 call, radio traffic & timeline from this incident

It’s been almost 12 weeks since 76-year-old Loretta Pickard died in what has become a controversial house fire. You’d think during that time Polk County, Florida officials would have familiarized themselves enough with the facts to provide specific and accurate answers to questions from reporters. Sadly, that didn’t occur during a press conference yesterday (Wednesday). While Deputy County Manager Joe Halman and Fire Chief Tony Stravino tried hard to defend the first arriving officer, Captain James Williams, they weren’t armed with a lot of details to make their case and, at times, made some bizarre statements. The video of the press conference is at the top of this post.

The controversy surrounding the November 23 fire became public last week when WFLA-TV reporter Melissa Marino began a series of reports about the fire. Yesterday’s press conference only addressed the fire suppression side of this incident. 911 for Polk County is handled by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office which was not represented at the gathering. Marino reported yesterday that protocol changes were made in December at the 911 center to address the call-taker not urging Loretta Pickard to immediately leave her home. (IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT 911: The statement from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office via WFLA-TV is at the bottom of this post. The new protocol appears to be providing call takers with just another script to be repeated every thirty seconds in case someone can’t leave a burning home. What’s really needed are not more call takers reading from a screen, but a person on the end of the line who knows the job well enough to listen and properly respond in a way to guide someone to safety. If you want an example of this, check out this incident from Oklahoma City. I fear the new protocols could make things worse next time and not better.).

Here are some of my observations from watching the press conference. It’s far from comprehensive. I’m certain many of you will find other key points.

  • Chief Stravino strongly stood up for his captain, saying James Williams told him the house was more involved than the 50-percent he initially described on the radio. The fire chief made much of the fact that Capt. Williams and the firefighter with him suffered steam burns when they tried to enter the home. Ms. Pickard was still talking with 911 for approximately five more minutes after the arrival of Engine 6 with Capt. Williams. Chief Stravino told reporters the department’s procedures were followed by the first arriving firefighters, “From a tactical standpoint, I don’t know what we could have done differently.”
  • Chief Stravino presented the Snapchat video (below) taken by Capt. Williams and photos shot by a PIO (see the photos here) to show how fire had engulfed the log cabin home. To put those visuals in context, reporters wanted to know how long after firefighters arrived the video and photos were taken. It’s puzzling that–after all of this time–the chief couldn’t provide a more precise accounting of when these images were shot. It’s likely metadata was available. If it wasn’t, that should have been explained.

  • In trying to explain the 750 gallons of water on the first engine to reporters, Chief Stravino indicated that to just fill up the hose line used to put water on the fire takes “200 to 300 gallons.” Wouldn’t that mean the attack line weighs more than 2400 pounds?
  • Chief Stravino allowed himself to get into a back and forth about two in-two out without providing much clarity on the subject.
  • Similarly, Stravino and Halman had such a poor grasp of the timeline of the incident they allowed themselves to get sidetracked and confused by a well meaning, but possibly misguided reporter. The reporter made much of the fact that the arcing power line seen in the Snapchat video shows that the power company had not yet cut off the electricity. What I got from the reporter is that he was trying to imply Ms. Pickard was still alive at that moment because she clearly talks about the power in the house going out. While I could be wrong on what the reporter was getting at, the chief needed to clearly explain that the power to the home was likely lost when the fire burned through the service line and that the line was arcing and still live until cut sometime later.
  • When asked by a reporter a pointed question about there possibly being a cover-up involving this incident, Joe Halman implied there was a racial element to that question being asked, “What I have to say about that cover-up, it’s interesting that all the individuals that you pointed out are African Americans. It’s interesting that the captain of this particular case is African American. Every single thing you have made allegation to is incorrect. It is not true when it comes to these African Americans. I, as the deputy county manager would not cover-up for anybody.”
  • Reporters had originally been told that Capt. James Williams would be appearing at the press conference. According to news reports, on the advice of his lawyer, Capt. Williams did not show. I can’t see anything that would have been gained by throwing Capt. Williams in front of the press in this situation. Thankfully the lawyer had some good sense, because the people who were going to allow that to happen sure didn’t.
  • There is more from the press conference from The Ledger.

Polk County’s poor showing at this press conference just reinforces my belief an outside investigation into all aspects of this incident should occur. Nothing from that press conference likely restored anyone’s confidence in Polk County Fire Rescue.

Statement from Polk County Sheriff’s Office on 911 issues surrounding this call (via WFLA-TV’s Melissa Marino):

“In rare circumstances, the caller may be trapped inside the building/structure. If this occurs, every attempt must be made to get the caller out of danger.” Also, in cases where after instructions are given to get out of the structure, and the caller is still unable to exit the building, the call taker must provide the following instructions: “’If it’s safe to do so, leave the building, close the doors behind you, and remain outside’ every 30 seconds until the caller exits the building or the call is complete.”

Also: “If while on the call it is determined that the fire department is unable to make entry, and all other means of assistance have been exhausted, the caller must be told to exit the building immediately. If the caller is unsure on how to escape, they must be told to use any means necessary to get out of the structure. In these situations, once protocol is complete, the call taker must tell the caller ‘Help is unable to reach you. You have to get out of the house now, and use any means necessary to do so.’ This phrase must be repeated every 30 seconds until the caller exits the building or the call is complete.”

The new protocol also mandates “that a supervisor must be notified of the situation. Once notified, the supervisor must sit at the position with the call taker and monitor the call to assist when necessary.”

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