NJ fire chief misses deadly house fire after 'technical snafu'
The Hamilton Fire Department said the issue has already been remedied and did not cause any disruption or delay of firefighting at the scene
By Kevin Shea
HAMILTON, N.J. — The on-duty fire chief that was supposed to have been dispatched to a house fire on Woodlawn Avenue in Hamilton earlier this month, where three people died, was not alerted by the Mercer County dispatch center, officials confirmed Wednesday.
Officials described the issue as a technical snafu by the county’s dispatch center, not an intentional act. It has already been remedied and did not cause any disruption or delay of firefighting at the scene, the Hamilton Fire Department and the town’s mayor said.
The Hamilton Fire Department is a new entity that started service on Jan. 1, 2021 after a five-year effort to consolidate the town’s eight autonomous fire districts, which each had their own portion of the 87,000-resident township.
Now, the career department, a municipal division of Hamilton government, is staffed around the clock and covers the 40 square miles of Hamilton. And they are working out some growing pains, officials said.
“This is part of having a new department, and figuring these things out,“ Mayor Jeff Martin said.
The fire department has two on-duty supervisors, a battalion chief and deputy chief, and while the battalion chief was not dispatched, the deputy chief did respond a short time later, officials said. That might not have been the case prior to 2021, Martin said, so the system of having a backup worked.
Martin and Hamilton Fire Chief Richard Kraemer discussed the incident Wednesday with NJ Advance Media to counter a rumor floating around that the battalion chief on duty slept through the fire.
Not accurate, they said.
While the chief, or other firefighters, may have been sleeping, they often do that during regular sleeping hours. This fire was reported at about 3:40 a.m.
Kraemer described the incident this way:
When the fire was reported, a dispatcher at Mercer County Central Communications - which handles Hamilton fire - alerted five fire companies, the chief and EMS units. Fire units not on the road are notified by what are called alert tones, a process that firefighters call being “toned out” to a fire or other call.
On the website Broadcastify, which archives emergency calls, the Mercer dispatcher can be heard audibly calling out the units after the tones, saying, “Engine 14, Engine 18, Truck 13, Battalion 10, Truck 17...Squad 12...”
Kraemer said the tone for Battalion 10 was not sent, and the chief did not hear the radio call.
Deputy 10, another Hamilton fire chief on duty, heard the call and responded, arriving about a minute after the first fire apparatus. Battalion 10 also arrived a short time later, Kraemer said.
The dispatch center, Kreamer said, informed his staff of the error. Now, working the dispatch center, Kraemer said they have changed the way chiefs are dispatched for a reported working fire.
Chiefs will be toned out first, then fire apparatus, not in the middle or end, so they can hear what companies are being sent to the incident they will command.
On Broadcastify, the chief’s absence on Woodlawn Avenue can be heard early in the fire as ambulance crews sought advice on where to put vehicles and gear as they treated patients.
“Deputy 10′s on scene, central, you been in contact with Battalion 10?” the Hamilton deputy on duty asked.
“Negative, his truck looks like it’s still at the firehouse,” a dispatcher responded.
The county dispatch center is referred to as just “central” in radio traffic.
Another time, when a unit asks if there is a command post, the deputy responds, “I’m assuming that Battalion 10 is here.”
“Uh, negative,” a dispatcher responds.
Battalion and deputy chiefs to not go into burning buildings, the command from the exterior, Kraemer reminded. While the incident was concerning, it had no impact on the initial firefighting by the engine and ladder companies on scene, officials said. Hamilton records show the first units were at the front of the building home in four minutes, he said.
“Those initial crews did everything and anything they could...to protect life and safety and attempt rescues,” Kraemer said. “They did a heck of a job. This had no negative effect on that.”
One firefighter who knows the person working as Battalion 10 that night feels awful about not being on scene and is now not sleeping much on overnight shifts, officials said.
The Woodlawn fire killed Tiffany Abrams-Jones, her husband, Prince Jones, and their 9-month-old granddaughter, Malani Sanders. Three other residents escaped with burns, including the baby’s mother.
Authorities have charged Malani’s father - Michael Sanders, 23, of Trenton - with multiple counts of murder and aggravated arson, alleging he set the fire. He was dating Malani’s mother.
No suspected motive has been offered by prosecutors, but they allege he texted his girlfriend earlier in the night and told her to get their daughter out of the house.
(c) 2021 Advance Local Media LLC