Fire Chief: Radio Problems Played Role in Southwest Inn Tragedy

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Radio communications hampered rescue efforts in the May 2013 fire of a hotel that took the lives of four Houston firefighters, Houston Fire Department Executive Assistant Chief Richard Mann said Tuesday.

Mann said at a press conference that the department had just upgraded to a new radio communications and was still working out kinks shortly before the Southwest Inn fire, at 6855 Southwest Freeway, which remains the deadliest day in the department's history.

"Because there was no prioritization, our incident commanders had a very difficult time directing overall operations," Mann said. "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."

Mann said the communications overload happened after the building's roof collapsed and trapped four firefighters.

"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," he said.

The press conference was called a day after local media published a final report outlining the findings and recommendations of an internal investigation. The 193-page report included approximately 200 recommendations by the Southwest Inn Recovery Committee, a task force created by HFD Chief Terry Garrison shortly after the incident.

The department has already addressed the radio communications problem, according to the report.

Garrison said his department has a reputation for using aggressive fire-suppression strategies, but denied that his firefighters take unnecessary risks. He called the department's approach "calculated aggression," saying that personnel were trained to weigh "critical knowns" like the size of the fire, time of day, and whether a structure is occupied, against "unknowns" such as infrastructural weakness and the potential presence of hazardous materials.

"There's no guesswork," Garrison said. "I'm not going to take my three best friends and go into this fire unless I absolutely have to. They did what they needed to do to place themselves in between the fire and the victims, and the destruction of property."

He added, "There was a theory ten years ago that it was okay to die in a building fire. Well, we don't have that in the Houston Fire Department. We are aggressive to the point where we are calculated with our aggression."

A five- or six-week department-wide training program will begin Sunday, and will include a briefing on what occurred during the Southwest Inn fire, as well as the resulting recommendations, Garrison said.

The firefighters union "addressed our concerns over the proposed radio upgrade in a formal letter to Fire Chief Garrison less than one month before that fatal fire," according to a statement by interim President Alvin White. He added that the union is "cautiously optimistic that these [remaining] changes can be enacted for the purpose of protecting our citizens while hopefully avoiding another tragedy...."

While some of the recommendations outlined in the draft report have already been implemented, others may be delayed or "modified due to limitations in technology, scheduling conflicts, or cost and budgetary constraints," according to the report.

Findings and recommendations include:

The GRACE Accountability System

These problems were addressed by HFD in September 2013

This system allows incident commanders to monitor individual firefighters on scene, as well as store data for future review. However, one unit's GRACE "command box" lost power (its battery ran down) and the data was not stored.

Adding to the confusion, there was no consistent "accountability officer" on hand to monitor the GRACE system. Instead, the position was transferred several times. "This resulted in numerous members being assigned to operate the GRACE Command box," according to the report.

Although the system allows individual firefighters to give "personal accountability reports," "Crews were unable to conduct Personal Accountability Reports...over the radio because of the high volume of radio traffic."

The Scott E-Z RadioComm System

Upgrades may be available in the 3rd quarter of 2014

This system attaches to a firefighter's self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). But, possibly due to a change in manufacturer, "non-functioning components" have been turned in "at alarming rates," according to the report.

The committee recommended that HFD "needs to invest the time and money necessary to research all new technology that is available in enhanced communication equipment."

Water Supply

Seven minutes after arriving on scene, the first firefighters to enter the building had to retreat when it was discovered their engine only had a quarter-tank of water and no positive water supply had been established. A supply was tapped one minute later, and the engine operator reported that the crew would re-enter the building.

The committee recommended that training officers "should be scheduling and conducting routine water supply drills on a consistent basis."

Cause and Origin of Fire

(The full report includes a two-page preliminary briefing by Houston Arson Bureau Assistant Chief Leocadio Gonzales. The official report is still pending.)

Local, state and federal investigators listed the cause as "undetermined," but they "agree there is no evidence at the present time to indicate the fire was deliberately started."

Witness interviews and testing by investigators "determined the fire originated in the attic space/crawl space above the [restaurant's] kitchen area adjacent to the utility room," the report states.

Killed in the fire were Senior Captain Matthew Renaud, 35, a 12-year veteran; Engineer Operator Robert Bebee, 41, a 12-year-veteran; Firefighter Robert Garner, 29, a three-year veteran who had also served two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Air Force; and Probationary Firefighter Anne Sullivan, 24, who had joined the department in January 2013.

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