Officials: Engine malfunction didn’t delay fatal fire response

Akron officials said they do not believe a fire engine malfunction delayed efforts to extinguish a blaze that ultimately killed a wheelchair-bound man

By Doug Livingston
Akron Beacon Journal

AKRON, Ohio — The city says it does not believe a fire engine malfunction delayed efforts to extinguish a blaze that ultimately killed a wheelchair-bound man Easter morning.

The Ellet fire began shortly after midnight near a space heater in the living room of the one-story home at 2621 Zesiger Ave., according to a fire investigation report. Bayard Betleyoun, 66, called 911.

He and his dog, who also perished in the blaze, were home alone. Betleyoun, a widower, died at 5:09 a.m. from complications related to smoke inhalation after being taken by ambulance to Summa Akron City Hospital.

“Every fire death is a devastating tragedy that deeply affects our first responders, city leadership and community,” said city spokesperson Ellen Lander-Nischt. “While the appropriate fire response arrived within minutes, by the time crews were able to make entry into the home, the fire had advanced significantly and the individual had already become overwhelmed by smoke.”

On the phone with emergency dispatch, Betleyoun described smoke filling his bedroom as flames moved toward the back of the house where he waited for help. By the time he stopped talking, a siren was blaring in the background.

Lander-Nischt said Tower 5, out of station 5 in Ellet, arrived first in less than four minutes, just after 12:20 a.m. The unit, however, was unable to immediately communicate its arrival on the scene, she said. Three other fire engines, plus a ladder truck, were dispatched at or shortly after 12:17 a.m., and one of those communicated that Tower 5 was already on site.

According to National Fire Protection Association standards cited by PURVIS Systems, which integrates and modernizes public emergency organizations, the first engine crew should be on the scene in 5 minutes’ travel time from when they are notified of a fire. Subsequent engines should arrive within 8 minutes’ travel time.

When an individual is reportedly trapped in a burning structure, the fire department deploys what Lander-Nischt called the “highest level fire response,” which included — in this case — “four fire engine companies, one ladder company, two battalions [commanders/captains], and one medical unit [ambulance].”

One of the fire engines didn’t work and another from the Firestone Park station reportedly took 30 minutes, according to times recorded on the investigation report, to reach the fire. The others came from Ellet, Middlebury and the south side of downtown.

After this story went to print, firefighters from Firestone Park notified city staff that they actually arrived only seconds after the Middlebury crew and even beat the downtown crew to the scene. Lander-Nischt said they tried to radio in their location but dispatch did not hear it. “They believe the radio traffic overlapped so it wasn’t entered by dispatch when they first arrived,” Lander-Nischt said.

Upon arrival, the crew of Tower 5 witnessed police officers trying to enter the home, according to the city’s account of what happened. “The door was nailed shut and blocked with significant debris, making entry difficult,” said Lander-Nischt, who put out a press release Thursday afternoon after multiple media outlets had asked about rumors of a fire engine not working.

Crews soon discovered a “then-unknown system malfunction that prevented pumping” water through Tower 5. The next fire engine, which is reported to have arrived at the same time, took the lead.

“Multiple fire engines are dispatched to the scene of an active, confirmed fire to ensure backup is always available,” Lander-Nischt said. “While we hope and expect that all equipment will perform perfectly every time, we must be prepared for these sorts of unforeseen circumstances. Fortunately, because the procedure requiring a multiple engine response was followed, the malfunction with Tower 5 is not believed to have caused any delay or compromised the city’s fire attack.”

The city has taken Tower 5 out of service to investigate the “rare and unacceptable equipment malfunction.” As the newest tower truck in the city’s fleet, administrators will review the equipment contract to see about replacing the pump part that malfunctioned.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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