Pinellas fire chiefs and county officials created a cutting-edge computer system to deliver crucial information to firefighters on their way to battle blazes.
But five years later, the system is full of holes because some fire departments have failed to provide critical data, leaving firefighters to dash blindly into dangerous situations, according to a St. Petersburg Times review.
Every emergency vehicle is equipped with a computer that is linked to the county's emergency dispatch system, which provides real-time information about the scene. It also is designed to give firefighters access to preplans, detailed drawings that show escape routes, gas and electrical shutoffs, hydrant locations and other helpful information.
The plans give firefighters an idea of what they'll be facing before they arrive.
No one expected the process of diagramming the thousands of manufacturers, condominiums, apartments and other high-risk structures spread across Pinellas County to go quickly. But after five years, critical sites like hospitals and schools are still missing. Among them:
• The 200-bed Sun Coast Hospital on Indian Rocks Road, which falls under the jurisdiction of Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue.
• Boca Ciega High School, 924 58th St. S, which is the responsibility of the Gulfport Fire Department.
• East Lake High School, near Tarpon Springs, which is the responsibility of East Lake Fire and Rescue.
• Northside Hospital and Dixie Hollins High School, which are both covered by Lealman Fire and Rescue.
The cities of Oldsmar, Treasure Island and Safety Harbor have provided no plans for the system. That means details of schools, high-rise condominiums and other such structures there are not easily available.
Pinellas County, which is the countywide fire authority, says the plans are important, but it doesn't have the power to make departments comply.
"Preplans are one of the key elements in ensuring firefighter safety and safety of the public," said Mike Cooksey, the county's fire division manager. "There's a fairly clear line that is drawn between the role of the fire authority and the actual day-to-day operations of the fire service. … (My role is) not to interfere in how they run their departments."
The lack of a preplan was blamed for confusion about the location of a gas shutoff valve during a fire at Town Apartments North in Lealman last month. And the lack of such a plan was one reason for the deaths of six firefighters last year at a furniture store fire in Charleston, S.C.
In addition to saving lives, the plans also can save money for consumers.
The Insurance Service Office is an independent organization that, among other things, evaluates fire departments. Its rankings, which help determine insurance rates for businesses and residents, consider the quality of a department's preplan system.
Up until a few years ago, Pinellas departments kept their plans in fat, three-ring binders in each truck. As firefighters rushed to the blazes, one of them would flip through hundreds of pages looking for the correct address. Not only was that inefficient, departments weren't generous about sharing the information with neighboring fire districts, leaving firefighters from outside the immediate zone to show up at a fire with no idea of a building's peculiarities.
Then came wireless computers. Tarpon Springs and Seminole started putting their plans on computers to allow instant access.
And Pinellas County suggested it could put that, and other information, on the dispatch system so it would be available to all. The cost to the county would be minimal — employees wrote the program and used existing equipment, said Jackie Weinreich, the 911 computer systems operator who oversees the system.
The cost to cities was higher. They had to buy the laptops, modems and other hardware to link to the system, a cost of about $7,000 to $10,000 per laptop.
It was a hard sell, Weinreich said. "We had to beg them."
But eventually everyone bought in. The Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association even developed a standard operating procedure that set forth details of the system, such as the type of symbols departments should use when creating a plan. The idea was to make it uniform so any firefighter from any Pinellas jurisdiction could easily interpret the diagrams.
"This is cutting-edge technology," Weinreich said. "This thing grows, it evolves and improves almost daily."
Implementation, however, has been slow. Some departments could not buy all the equipment at one time. Others lacked the time and personnel to develop the detailed plans.
"Currently, all fire departments participate in that they use the wireless software (to) receive calls, read notes, change their status, etc.," Weinreich said. "However, Oldsmar, Treasure Island and Safety Harbor have yet to provide preplans so they can be viewed by all users. All three of these departments have stated that they are in the process of providing the data to us."
And there has been little coordination about what should go first into the system.
Largo fire Chief Mike Wallace said the first entries should be high risk — those buildings where there is the possibility for the loss of many lives, like schools and hospitals or companies that have explosive or dangerous chemicals on the property. Also high on the list, Wallace said, should be companies that provide much of a community's livelihood because it would be tragic to lose jobs and the financial benefits of a major employer.
Some departments, like Pinellas Park, have set priorities in determining which plans get onto the system first.
Others, like Lealman, have been slower. Lealman did not have a preplan on the county system for Town Apartments North when one of its buildings caught fire last month. Lealman submitted 64 plans for the complex the day after the Times published a story on its Web site about the lack of such a plan.
At the other end of the scale are departments like Tarpon Springs, Seminole, St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
"It's extremely important," Seminole fire Chief Dan Graves said. "It gives us the edge when you go into these buildings at 3 o'clock in the morning."
St. Petersburg's first diagrams were done by hand. Since then, they've moved to computer drawings. "Theirs are beautiful," Weinreich said. "And Clearwater's the same."
What makes a beautiful preplan?
Lots of details, Weinreich said.