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Report: Houston fatal hotel fire committee makes 200 safety recommendations

Significant technical challenges with a new radio system fueled the disorganization where four firefighters died


By Jayme Fraser Lomi Kriel and St. John Barned-Smith
The Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Ten minutes after a caller reported a fire at a southwest Houston hotel, a team that responded ran out of water in its engine’s tank as another group searched the grounds for a fire hydrant. The firefighters had to briefly back out, then reenter the building.

It was one moment of chaos among many on the worst day in the Houston Fire Department’s history, recounted in a report detailing the department’s investigation into the May 31, 2013, fire at the Southwest Inn. Four firefighters died and 12 others were injured.

A draft copy of the report, obtained by news organizations Monday, reveals that some firefighters abandoned radio procedures, creating confusion about who was in charge and cluttering radio channels with non-essential transmissions. At times, the response was delayed by limited planning — stations are required to develop response plans for major structures — that included challenges finding space for arriving units.

Significant technical challenges with a new radio system, put into use less than a year earlier, fueled the disorganization as strong winds whipped the fire into a much larger blaze, according to the report.

The draft report contains the first detailed timeline of the fire department’s response and makes more than 200 recommendations to improve safety and organization at future catastrophic events. It does not directly address whether anything could have been done differently to save the lives of firefighters Matthew Renaud, Robert Bebee, Robert Garner and Anne Sullivan. Nor does it identify a cause for the fire.

Fire Chief Terry Garrison, who ordered the inquiry by a 20-member committee that produced the report, could not be reached for comment Monday. The state fire marshal’s office and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health also are investigating.

The report included stern warnings from the committee to follow procedures, such as adhering to “proper radio discipline.” It asked for policy changes to clarify who issues orders during emergency recovery operations and suggested improvements to the radio system.

The report suggested requiring more detail in advance plans written by each station for major structures in its district and adding bar codes to every piece of equipment so it can be linked to an individual firefighter in the case of a death.

State and federal authorities investigating previous fatal fires have critiqued HFD’s aggressive suppression strategy. The 11 Houston firefighters who have died on-duty since 2000 were killed in burning buildings during rapid internal sweeps intended to suppress the fire while searching for victims.

Five reports going back to a 2000 blaze highlighted problems with HFD’s coordination, communication and risk assessment at fire scenes. Some of those same issues are highlighted in the latest draft report.

Houston fire officials have admitted their philosophy remains aggressive, but defended it as the only way to save lives.

The 193-page report gives new details into how an initially small hotel fire, normally routine business for firefighters, became a deadly inferno.

The first call reporting the fire came from the Southwest Inn at 12:05 p.m. Two minutes later, Engine 51 was dispatched, making its way through congested traffic that would slow the arrival of other units as thick black smoke billowed across the Southwest Freeway and brought drivers to “a crawl,” the report said.

Because of the one-way feeder road, all responding fire engines had to take the same route and make a U-turn. Insufficient space around the building forced crews to park and stage their equipment on the feeder road. A 16-mph wind whipped the flames.

By 12:15, firefighters recorded a temperature of 184 degrees at the doorway as they entered the building. Seven minutes after the initial entry, part of the roof collapsed, which an engineer later attributed to the fire and not a structural problem.

“MAYDAY MAYDAY,” crackled over the radio at 12:23. A minute later, the incident commander said, “Command calling E051 can you give me some idea where you’re at?”

Ten seconds yielded no response.

“Command calling the MAYDAY companies, find your hose, get back to your hose and follow the hose out,” the commander implored of the unresponsive firefighters trapped inside.

As dozens of firefighters rotated through rescue assignments, working “at a relentless pace” and watching a crack spread in the face of the brick veneer wall near the closest exit point, the report shows malfunctioning radios escalated the chaos.

In a 23-page special section, the report highlighted issues with the quality of radio transmissions and procedures that delayed the relay of essential information.

For instance, until a separate channel was established for rescue operations seven minutes after the collapse, radio traffic also included commands to crews still fighting the blaze and new units arriving at the scene.

“Due to an excessive number of people trying to transmit messages, company officers were simply unable to communicate on the radio,” read the report.

An accessory attached to Beebee’s radio failed in the heat. A thin casing protecting the wires melted, causing them to touch and inadvertently key about 20 times as rescue crews searched for the fire captain in the collapse. Just before the collapse, the team had reported issues with non-functioning microphones.

About a month ago, the fire department shared a draft of the report with firefighters at Firehouses 51 and 68 as well as family members of the seven firefighters who were killed or seriously injured, said Mary Sullivan, who attended the meeting. Her 24-year-old daughter, Probationary Firefighter Anne Sullivan, died in the blaze.

Despite the detailed information in the report, “there’s still a lot of questions,” Sullivan said. Chief among them: there is still no indication of what caused the fire.

“Nothing is going to bring them back,” she said. “But moving forward, hopefully we can have this never happen again.”

David Renaud, whose younger brother Matthew was killed, said he hadn’t been able to read all of the details. He, too, noted unanswered questions.

“Why did it take so long to get in there, stuff like that, when does it get called from 1 to 2 to 3 alarm?” he asked.

He wondered why firefighters from Station 68 followed Station 51 firefighters in when they didn’t have a fire hose with them.

“There’s — on my end — there’s always going to be some questions,” he said.


(c)2014 the Houston Chronicle

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