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Missing building diagram may have complicated Lealman fire scene

LEALMAN — Fire Chief Rick Graham describes fire scenes as "organized chaos."

That was especially true of last Friday's blaze at Town Apartments North, when the lack of a detailed sketch of the Florian building may have contributed to the confusion.

Such a diagram, known as a pre-incident plan, clearly lays out important information about a building, such as the location of hydrants, doors, stairs, electrical panels and gas shut-off valves. That way, fire crews responding during a crisis know exactly where everything is and don't have to hunt for vital landmarks in dark, smoky conditions.

Having the plan is "basic, good fire service practice. … They need to know what the risks are," said Gerard Hoetmer, executive director of the Public Entity Risk Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides risk management information to governments and businesses.

Pinellas County officials agree that the plans make good sense. The county has even set up a computer system so all departments can share information in case they are called to a fire outside their normal coverage area.

But not all departments have managed to get the diagrams for the buildings in their jurisdictions onto the county system. Town Apartments North, overseen by Graham's Lealman Fire Department, is one that has not been entered into the system.

The only plan was on paper in the vehicle driven by the Lealman district chief in charge of the scene. Units from Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg and elsewhere that logged onto the county system found only a general map of the condominium complex showing the locations of buildings and hydrants.

The date on the map: July 2002, 11 months before the last fire at Town Apartments North destroyed a building, leaving dozens of mostly elderly residents homeless for a little more than two years.

"It makes sense to have one system where everyone can have access to that information," Graham said. But it takes time and money to enter the information, he said.

"Yes, it should be on there, but it takes time to get things done," Graham said. "This is a process that's going to take several years."

Having the information available to everyone may have caused some confusion over a gas line.

When firefighters arrived a little before 6 a.m. Friday, they immediately began clearing people out of the Florian building. As they got people out, they turned to fighting the blaze. Graham said the officer in charge ordered that the power and gas going into the building be turned off. But later, another firefighter questioned whether the gas was off.

Graham said a second crew, not from Lealman, was sent to doublecheck that it was off. That crew, working without a copy of the plan, was unable to find the shutoff valve. Still later, another firefighter said he smelled gas, and TECO was called. Almost two hours after firefighters arrived, a TECO representative told Graham that the gas was off.

It's unclear whether the TECO representative actually turned off the gas or whether he merely confirmed it was already off. A TECO spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Graham concedes that the second crew had trouble finding the gas shutoff, but it didn't matter because "it was already off." Graham said he called TECO because he had received a complaint about a gas smell and wanted to make sure there was no gas leak or other problem.

"I believe the gas was off, whether or not it got turned back on, I don't know," the chief said. "It wasn't a gas fire, so it had to be off."

He conceded that had the building details been on the county computer, some of the confusion might have been avoided.

"You could make an issue out of anything," Graham said. "I don't think that's the story. The story should be they did a good job putting the fire out."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at (727) 893-8450 or alindberg@tampabay.com.

Missing building diagram may have complicated Lealman fire scene 10/27/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 27, 2009 3:52pm]
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