The families of three firefighters who were killed while battling a fire at a hotel along the Southwest Freeway in 2013 are suing Motorola, alleging the telecommunications company's radios failed when the firefighters attempted to call for help from inside the burning structure, KPRC first reported earlier today.
The fire was the deadliest incident in the Houston Fire Department's history after one of the buildings at the Southwest Inn collapsed, injuring 16 firefighters and killing four: Robert Bebee, Robert Garner, Matthew Renaud and 24-year-old rookie Anne Sullivan. Injured firefighter Robert Yarborough and the families of Bebee, Garner and Sullivan filed suit against Motorola on Monday, seeking punitive damages.
The lawsuit says HFD purchased a $140 million digital radio system from Motorola in 2013 that was implemented a month before the fire. According to the complaint, technical problems caused HFD's firefighters to be shut out of the radio system 339 times in the first 30 minutes of the fire and 256 times after the hotel's roof collapsed. The lawsuit also alleges the radios would constantly freeze, experience delays and would go out of range only a few feet away.
The lawsuit says the Motorola radios had an "Emergency Call" button that was "not conducive to use with gloves, resulting in the preposterous situation that a firefighter in an emergency would have to remove protective gloves in the middle of firefighting to activate the radio's emergency call button. Despite multiple firefighters on scene, trapped and injured, not one 'Emergency Call Button' was activated in the Southwest Inn fire."
Without functioning radios, the firefighters were forced to yell to communicate with each other throughout the fire, according to the lawsuit, which also alleges Motorola sold HFD the radios despite knowing they were inadequate for firefighting.
In 2014, HFD released a 193-page internal investigation of the fire, citing faulty radio communications that hampered the department's rescue efforts.
"Because there was no prioritization, our incident commanders had a very difficult time directing overall operations," HFD Executive Assistant Chief Richard Mann said at a 2014 press conference. "Obviously, communication was at a heightened level at that point. As a service, nationwide, we've got to get better at emergency communications rather than emergency conversations. When you have four Maydays, everyone has something critical to say. Whoever tied up that channel kept the incident commander from directing the overall scene."
In the 2014 report, HFD said it had already addressed the communications problems it encountered during the Southwest Freeway fire.
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Last September, a 106-page report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health also criticized the department's radio functionality during the fire. While the report acknowledged HFD had already made improvements to the department's communications systems, after the report was released, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Alvin White said in a statement that many of the changes had yet to be implemented.
"The truth is, we still face staffing shortages, systemic radio failures and other technology problems, an aging fleet and facilities, and inconsistent provision of training," White said in September. "Our obligations to our lost [firefighters] demand that lessons be learned from their sacrifices."
You can read the entire complaint against Motorola here: