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Federal report faults firefighting at condo

Clearwater firefighters violated several basic procedures in responding to last year's deadly blaze at Dolphin Cove Condominiums, according to a report on a federal investigation released late Monday.

Drafted by the United States Fire Administration, the report shows Clearwater firefighters lacked leadership on the scene and ended up "freelancing" at the fire that killed two elderly residents and badly burned three firefighters.

While the report's careful language avoids direct blame, it makes clear that the department fell short in several crucial areas, including communications, strategic planning and tactical operations.

Despite facing a broken hydrant outside the building and a central water source inside that had been shut off, firefighters had plenty of water to extinguish the fire if only they had followed their own guidelines, according to the report.

"In this instance," the report states, "water was not put on the fire for approximately 28 minutes." The blaze killed two and injured 10.

Late Monday, city officials said they were not surprised by the results of the investigation.

"There was no significant new information," said fire Chief Rowland Herald.

Said City Manager Bill Horne: "I don't think there's anything about the Dolphin Cove fire that was identified in this report that our staff hasn't identified as a training emphasis."

An internal department review turned up similar "lessons learned," including the need for better communication, strong management and comprehensive guidelines, Herald said.

"Their investigation yielded similar results as ours did," he said.

In fact, the federal investigator's findings are a far cry from those made public last year by the city in a 600-page report about the fire on June 28, 2002.

Among the contributing factors, Chief Herald said then, were the building's lack of sprinklers, flawed radio communications and residents' failure to call 911 promptly.

The U.S. Fire Administration, though, found that firefighters didn't follow fundamental, accepted rules of firefighting and violated their own high-rise guidelines. Those findings echoed an earlier investigation published last year by the St. Petersburg Times.

Horne said not everything the city found in its review was released.

"The city is faced with potential liability," he said. "We do get advice on what we should say publicly in light of potential litigation."

Among the problems detailed in the federal report:

+ It is critical for firefighters to set up a staging area below a fire to develop a game plan. (At Dolphin Cove, firefighters went directly to the fire floor, only to be met with thick smoke that clouded their search for the fire.)

+ Accepted practice is to begin fighting a fire from the inside, using a building's internal water system, known as a standpipe, in the stairwells. (At Dolphin Cove, the first water put on the fire came from outside the building.)

+ Had firefighters carried a hose from the stairwell, they could have hit the fire with water from the inside and pushed smoke and heat out, away from the building's interior and the people inside. (At Dolphin Cove, the crew on the fire floor couldn't get water, abandoned firefighting efforts and instead started evacuating residents.)

+ Firefighters violated basic guidelines by taking elevators to the fire floor. (At Dolphin Cove, three firefighters were trapped briefly when elevator doors wouldn't open.)

+ Finally, procedures should be in place, and followed, to silence unnecessary radio traffic and trigger rescue efforts when firefighters go missing.

The report also finds fault with residents' decision to fight the fire themselves, before calling 911. The delayed alarm allowed the fire to build, and an open door in the fifth-floor condo where it started let smoke and fire explode down the hallway.

"With the center standpipe riser shut off," the report states, "the first firefighters on the fire floor were left without an immediate means to suppress the fire and protect themselves and the other occupants."

Clearwater fire officials said Dolphin Cove suffered a "flashover," a rare kind of explosion in a confined space that causes the very air to catch fire.

The report states there is "some disagreement as to the fire phenomenon that occurred in the hallway" and listed it as a "possible flashover."

Last year, Clearwater asked for the review by the U.S. Fire Administration, an arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency whose goal is to reduce fire deaths.

Herald said Monday that the department has stepped up training since Dolphin Cove on revised high-rise firefighting guidelines.

Horne said he will study the results to determine whether the department has made the right adjustments in training since the fire.

"You train to make sure that these things don't occur," he said. "The bottom line is: You don't repeat these in a future incident."