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City reports confusion led to house fire delay

Saturday, January 31, 2004

Based on policy and the information they had, city firefighters say they were not wrong to wait.
NILES -- Communication breakdowns at several levels led to confusion about who was supposed to fight a fire, a city report says.
Officials released their official report Friday on the Jan. 15 fire at 2782 Robbins Ave. It found that confusion about where the fire was located, about whether the Weathersfield Township fire department had actually been notified, and an unwritten policy led to the episode.
The investigation -- conducted by Tom Telego, emergency management coordinator; Mayor Ralph A. Infante; Maurice Guarino, safety director; and Fire Chief Charles Semple -- found that under guidelines in place at the time, and based on information they received about township firefighters' being en route, Niles fire crews were not wrong to wait, the report says.
"Not having a mutual aid agreement, following verbal orders to remain in the city and believing that Weathersfield Fire was not far behind ultimately became the factors behind the captain's decision," the report states.
Let fire burn
City officials began looking into circumstances surrounding the fire after city crews were criticized for letting the house continue burning after determining no one was trapped inside. Niles fire crews were mistakenly dispatched to the home, which is actually in McKinley Heights, a portion of Weathersfield Township.
The report shows the Ohio State Highway Patrol received a 911 cellular call at 12:53 p.m., which was transferred to the county's 911 center within one minute. Niles crews left the downtown station at 12:57 p.m., and arrived on the scene by 1:03 p.m.
No answer
When Niles crews determined the fire was actually in Weathersfield, they tried to contact the city dispatch center at least four times to verify Weathersfield was coming, but never received an answer. A Weathersfield Township police officer arrived on the scene, and said township crews were en route, but the volunteer department actually wasn't dispatched until 1:04 p.m., the report shows. Township crews first arrived on the scene and began battling the blaze by 1:12 p.m.
The report also states that Niles crews quickly determined that the only way to fight the fire would be for all nine firefighters on duty to enter the house. But before that date, the report says, city crews had been told to remain in the city unless they had approval from the fire chief, the safety director or the mayor.
That order is one of the things that needs to be changed, the report recommends.
"Through this unfortunate chain of events many important lessons have been learned, and a window of opportunity has been created to examine current safety procedures," the report reads.
Evaluate orders
The department and city leaders should review all ordinances and mandates, either written or verbal, and evaluate them for consistency. The report also calls for establishing mutual aid agreements between the city and all bordering communities, which is under way.
Other recommendations include the formal adoption of an Incident Command Structure by all departments in the city, recording all fire department radio traffic and increasing the participation of Niles fire crews in local fire chief meetings and training exercises.