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Report shows first firefighters at deadly FL fire weren’t prepared to fight a fire & save a life

Report released Monday about Polk County fire that killed Lorretta Pickard

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Previous coverage of this fire

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NEW: Polk County fire chief resigns after release of report

My synopsis of what may be the most important key finding from the report ordered to look into a deadly and controversial house fire in Polk County, Florida last November is that the first arriving engine company didn’t show up ready to fight fire and save lives:

The report from Emergency Services Consulting International on the fire that killed 76-year-old Lorretta Pickard was released yesterday (Monday). As you may recall, Pickard, who was disabled, was still on the phone talking with 911 when Polk County Fire Rescue firefighters pulled up outside her home. The controversy has been over the decision of the initial firefighters not to attempt a rescue effort and issues with communications by 911 workers. A previous internal report uncovered by WFLA-TV reporter Melissa Marino cited multiple issues with the first engine crew along with the 911 center operated by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

Pickard remained on the phone for about five minutes after the arrival of the first firefighters. She had already been talking with 911 for about 15 minutes before the first engine was on the scene. The captain of that engine, James Williams, resigned from Polk County Fire Rescue a month after reporter Marino broke the news in February about problems at the fire. His resignation surrounded posting video of the fire and a previous fire on social media.

After a disastrous February press conference by Polk County’s fire chief and deputy county manager, the outside report was ordered at a reported cost of almost $39,000.

John Chambliss, The Ledger:

Multiple problems with Polk County Fire Rescue contributed to errors made during a fire on Nov. 23 in North Lakeland that left a 76-year-old woman dead, according to a report from a company hired by the county to investigate.

After 2½ months of investigating, Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI) reported:

  • A lack of radio communication during the fire.
  • A lack of training in the department
  • An ongoing challenge of finding experienced people to move into leadership roles.
  • A failure to bring rescue tools to the burning home.

Read entire story

911 Center findings

Emergency Services Consulting International reviewed the actions of the dispatcher and, like many of us who listened to both the call from Pickard and the radio traffic, found issues with the relaying of important information to firefighters.

The International Academics of Emergency Dispatch (IAED) Fire Standards Council was used to review the actions of the call taker. Its report (page 204) generally praised the work of the call taker who remained on the line until Pickard collapsed and died:

I absolutely agree the call taker should be commended for her “empathetic, caring interaction” and should not be blamed for Pickard’s death. But this finding, while it goes against my own conclusions from listening to the tragic phone call multiple times, unfortunately supports my belief the general state of 911 in the U.S should be a serious concern for all of us.

If highly qualified 911 professionals truly believe the handling of this call was acceptable because the call taker generally followed protocols and was empathetic, we’re in a lot of trouble. Sorry to be so blunt, but there were serious issues involving active listening, situational awareness, critical thinking skills and general knowledge about how to help Pickard. There was an overall lack of urgency trying to encourage Pickard to find a way out of the house despite her disability. The call taker never even explained to Pickard the firefighters weren’t around the corner, but a full 15-minutes away.

The internal report done in December by a Polk County battalion chief and uncovered by reporter Marino in February had a much better grasp on the issues involving the handling of the Lorretta Pickard’s call to 911.

The IAED report make sense only if all you want from 911 call takers is to read scripts and be no better trained than the average telemarketing center. If you strive for something more in your 911 center you should seriously question these findings.

Lorretta Pickard in family photo


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