A fatal fire a month ago today in an Island Estates condominium building still has Clearwater city government reeling. This isn't the first time there has been a loss of life in a Clearwater fire, but the impact of this one has been enormous.
Why have some firefighters been reluctant to answer questions about the fire? Why are top city officials sounding angry and defensive? Why is the fire union president slamming the city manager and city commissioners and risking alienating them? Why is the investigative report on the fire still not done? What are the motives of fire union members who packed a recent City Commission meeting to complain and support their union boss?
Perhaps one explanation for the continuing impact of the fire in the Dolphin Cove condominium is that it was a really scary fire. What started as a kitchen fire in the early morning in Unit 501 mushroomed into a fifth-floor blaze so ferocious that even firefighters had to run for their lives. Five firefighters were injured. Two residents died. It easily could have been worse. Firefighters were offered counseling to help them cope with the awful knowledge that they came close to losing several colleagues who are like family. Firefighters, family members of those hurt and killed, and city officials were upset.
Then came the questions. All serious fires are investigated to determine their origin, if nothing else. That's routine. But in the case of the Dolphin Cove fire, the investigation was certain to be different because of some unique problems at the fire scene.
A hydrant on one side of the building had no water. Inside the building, a standpipe, which is a special water pipe installed to provide water for firefighting, also was dry. Fire crews were delayed getting to the fire because residents who first spotted it tried to fight it themselves. Doors that were supposed to close to keep smoke out of stairwells malfunctioned. Add to those issues the most significant factor of all _ two people died _ and you have a situation that must be examined.
Why? Because it could happen again. Above all else, firefighters, city department heads and city commissioners should be working to wring from the Dolphin Cove experience every lesson possible and apply that new knowledge to future fights _ and to do so as speedily as possible, since lives are at stake.
Yet at times in the last month, that hasn't seemed to be everyone's priority.
A month after the fire, the investigative report still is not finished. Fire union president John Lee demanded legal representation for any firefighters questioned as part of that investigation. A handful of firefighters refused to answer any questions at all. Some city officials gave conflicting answers to questions about the fire, leaving questioners to wonder whether they were just confused or trying to cover their tracks. That led to more questions.
The behavior of the fire union leadership has been especially incomprehensible. Lee showed up at the televised July 18 City Commission meeting, appearing to be backed by dozens of firefighters wearing red union T-shirts. Holding up melted gear, Lee ranted at city commissioners, all of whom have been supportive of firefighters in the past, and accused them of failing to support the Fire Department. He said the department is understaffed and its equipment is substandard. He even accused the commissioners of taking "a dangerous gamble" with the lives of firefighters and the public. The red-shirted people in the audience cheered him on. Those watching on television would have gotten the impression that virtually the entire Fire Department was there and that their gear was of the bargain-basement variety.
Yet the next day, the city released a report showing that the gear worn by the injured firefighters met or exceeded recent national standards. No one making the accusations Thursday provided proof of how understaffing played any role in the Dolphin Cove fire. And all those people in red T-shirts? Turns out, observers have told the Times, that some of them weren't Clearwater firefighters.
What's going on here?
And why is it, as one city official put it Friday, that "this whole thing is like somebody kicked an ant hill"?
I believe that initially, people in the fire service were truly frightened by the Dolphin Cove fire, and legitimately so. The vast majority of emergency calls to the Clearwater Fire Department are medical calls and traffic accidents. Many firefighters could go through their whole careers without seeing a fire as dangerous as that one.
However, I think some individuals moved quickly past that stage to a new focus on how they could protect themselves from being blamed for something. We are a nation that avoids accountability. Our private sector and public sector organizations spend vast amounts of time and money protecting themselves from liability. Some in the city seemed more concerned about covering themselves than ensuring the public's safety. The city Water Department appears to have been an exception. Officials there quickly took the blame for failing to get the dry hydrant repaired in a timely manner, made fast changes to procedures to fix the problem, and sent an employee out to check all hydrants.
But I think for some in the employee unions, the Dolphin Cove fire has become a convenient device. Paint a picture of a Fire Department that can't keep people safe, do it on television, and all kinds of political pressure descends on city commissioners, who though angry, might just give you what you want to ease the pressure.
Even before the fire, discussions with the city over union demands for improved pension benefits were not going well. The fire union also is just beginning contract talks with the city.
The timing couldn't be better for the union. A fatal fire. Residents worried about whether the hydrant near their house will work. The appearance of a small army of firefighters claiming to be understaffed and poorly equipped.
Legitimate beef or smokescreen? There still are too many unanswered questions to know for sure. What is clear is that there is a chasm between the Fire Department and the city administration that grows wider every day. That benefits no one.
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