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Fire response to Hillsborough County apartment fire questioned

TAMPA — As Lillian Perez walked out to the trash bin near her home in the Oaks at Granada last month, she saw smoke billowing out of an upstairs window in her neighbors' building.

She immediately called 911 on her cell phone.

"They told me they were already on the way," the 52-year-old resident said.

So she went to run her errands, confident that help was on the way. But when Perez reached her third stop, the CVS Pharmacy on 56th Street and Bullard Parkway, she noticed that none of the engines at the Temple Terrace Fire Station No. 1 had left to douse the blaze.

Meanwhile, the flames at 7010 Santa Ana Drive were spreading across the blazing roof of two buildings that housed eight families.

Hillsborough County Fire Rescue received the call at 1 p.m. and arrived five minutes later, said county emergency dispatch center manager Joni Taylor.

But Perez and her neighbors are asking why Temple Terrace firefighters didn't respond to the first call if they were only about a mile away?

The answer is more complicated than the question.

Hillsborough County and its three municipalities, Temple Terrace, Tampa and Plant City, all have separate call centers from which emergency personnel receive direction, said Ray Yeakley, a spokesman for county fire rescue.

When a call comes in from a particular jurisdiction, it is automatically routed to that area's call center, and the dispatchers send their own personnel to an emergency, unless the nearest unit is unavailable.

Through the countywide mutual aid agreement, there are instances in which the cities are called if Hillsborough cannot respond in the standard time of 5.7 minutes, and vice versa, but this was not one of those occasions, Yeakley said.

The Temple Terrace Fire Department did come out to assist county firefighters after the fire made it to its second alarm, Taylor said.

They were notified of the blaze at 1:09 p.m. and arrived at 1:15 p.m, said Michael Dunn, the Temple Terrace spokesman.

Nicole Monroe, 18, was inside the burning building with her 19-month-old daughter, Nariah, and said they lost everything in their second floor apartment.

"I smelled something but I ignored it until the maintenance man came by and banged on the door and said the building was on fire," Monroe said.

The electrical fire started in a dryer that was being repaired, Monroe said.

After grabbing her daughter and getting out of the building, she said she watched the black smoke and flames move from the far end of the buildings toward her apartment for 10 minutes until the first trucks arrived.

"It started on the opposite side so I thought that it would be out before it got to our apartment," she said.

But blustery winds, lack of fire walls between apartments and a shared attic spread the fire rapidly across the buildings, said Battalion Chief Benny Jordan.

The cities and county work together often to extinguish fires that may require more personnel and equipment than one force can muster, said Capt. Mark Bogush of Tampa Fire Rescue.

A Tampa crew was among the first responders in the Granada Apartments fire, rushing to the scene from 3 miles away at 30th Street and Hillsborough Avenue.

But for mutual aid to be effective, dispatchers have to take into account the impact their request on available resources in the other jurisdiction.

"If Tampa fights a fire that's in the county because we're closer, if a fire breaks out in the city, we can't serve the people who pay their taxes in the city," Bogush said.

Pinellas County has a unified call center. All emergency calls come to the same place. Pinellas dispatchers are a separate agency from the county's police and fire departments, and they've been dispatching the closest available help since 1991, according to the county Web site.

Statistics show that the 20 fire departments dispatched by Pinellas' call center get more than 18,000 fire reports and more than 165,000 calls for ambulances a year.

Yeakley said Hillsborough County Fire Rescue receives more than 84,000 calls annually. Tampa Fire Chief Dennis Jones said the city receives 66,000 annual calls, 55,000 of which are medical.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said a unified call center has been one of his goals for the county since he was elected in 2004.

He said his military experience in the Navy watching the four branches coordinate seamlessly through Central Command showed him that streamlining emergency operations is a must.

But translating military methods into civilian life has proven to be politically complicated.

"This issue is bringing together the bureaucracies because you have four separate governments who have to come to an agreement for this to happen," Sharpe said. "That is going to take some time."

Taylor said budget issues make the unified option unlikely in the near future.

"We would have to build a building, furnish it, link up all the software and do all the training before something like that could happen," she said.

Temple Terrace explored the idea of joining their call center with the county two years ago, Dunn said, but ultimately decided against the cost-saving measure.

"Our people know our area," Dunn said. "If there was an accident in Lowman Park and the caller didn't know the exact address, if they said Lowman Park our dispatch would know where the person was. So there is a safety issue."

Regarding the Granada Apartment fire, Taylor pointed out that when dispatchers are deciding whether to call for reinforcements from another jurisdiction under the mutual aid agreement, they have to take into account the staffing levels of smaller fire departments such as Temple Terrace and Plant City.

"They have limited resources. Temple Terrace only has two fire houses. So we are very mindful of that when we contact them," she said.

Oaks at Granada resident Perez said she thinks county and city officials should do whatever is necessary to make sure all the closest engines respond to a fire.

The former charity worker's lungs were permanently damaged in a Virginia house fire in 1996. Now on disability, she couldn't fathom how she would have been able to get out of the thick black smoke if an electrical fire broke out in her building.

"I don't regret living here," she said. "But it does scare me that having a fire station a mile away doesn't mean anything."

Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or rmitchell@sptimes.com.

Fire response to Hillsborough County apartment fire questioned 05/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 21, 2012 8:47am]
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