Polk County changes 911 policies following deadly fire

8 On Your Side
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It’s a heartbreaking situation that led a family to demand changes in Polk County.

“I think my house is on fire and I’m here alone on a walker,” 76-year-old Loretta Pickard can be heard saying to a 911 dispatcher in the final moments of her life.

It takes the dispatcher nearly two minutes to get through other questions before she realizes Loretta was trapped inside.

At the beginning of the call, the dispatcher told Loretta if she can get out of the house to do so. Several minutes into the call, the dispatcher asked Loretta again why she can’t move around.

“I usually do OK. I don’t know, I guess I’m scared.” Loretta told the dispatcher. At that point, the dispatcher seemed to continue on with her questions.

Loretta died in November when her house in North Lakeland caught fire. She was on the phone with that 911 dispatcher for the last 20 minutes of her life.

“It’s like she wasn’t actually listening. She was just more about typing down the names and addresses, she wasn’t really connecting. And she should’ve asked how close are you to a door. She never asked. She was five feet from a door,” Loretta’s niece Amber Addison told 8 On Your Side.

They say the dispatcher never conveyed the serious danger that Loretta was in, and appeared to be just following a script.

“I get that she was following the guidelines but at what point does common sense kick in,” Addison said.

The family said it comes down to the training and protocols the county has implemented. They said they hope the county will implement changes to make sure this doesn’t happen to another family.

Investigation

After 8 On Your Side broke the story, Polk County Commissioners launched an investigation into the entire incident.

After receiving record requests from 8 On Your Side, County Commission Chairman George Lindsey said he decided they need to get involved and find out what happened.

“If there is a breakdown in the protocols and the personnel and the systems in place, then we need to know that to make those changes,” he said.

Response

As the dispatcher worked to calm Loretta, she assured her several times that help was on the way. But the 76-year-old was never rescued.

Deputy County Manager Joe Halman Jr. told 8 On Your Side that crew attempted to rescue Loretta, but it was “too hot” and said one firefighter was even “singed” during their attempt.

That attempt was not documented or evident in a 911 dispatch log, dispatch audio or the 911 call provided by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

Halman also said not everything that happened was in the 911 dispatch log.

Policy

Polk Fire Rescue’s policy, and industry standard, is to have two firefighters on the outside before two firefighters go inside a fire. Deputy County Manager Joe Halman confirmed to 8 On Your Side that in a situation involving life and death, that policy doesn’t apply, which is also industry standard. 

“According to policy, if somebody’s life is in danger, one person can go in and save them,” Halman told 8 On Your Side.

Yet, according to the radio transmission, Captain Williams sent no one in. Instead, he waited.  

“Engine 6 to 23, what’s your ETA?” Captain Williams is heard asking on dispatch logs. Engine 23 responds they are one minute away. 

“Copy that. When you get here I need your help up at the structure – two in, two out – so we can make entry and see if anybody’s inside please,” Captain Williams said.

A few minutes later on the dispatch call, a chief comes on the radio and asked, “Command do you have an entrapment?”

“Chief, it’s too far gone for us to even attempt to make access to the structure now,” Captain Williams replied.

“I’m not asking you to make access, I’m asking if anyone on scene has confirmed whether you have entrapment or not?” the chief responded.

Despite the dispatcher repeatedly notifying the crew that someone was trapped inside, Captain Williams appeared to believe no one was inside.

“No sir there are no residents on scene at this time, no cars in the driveway, no residents,” Captain Williams said.

According to the fire report, a second crew on scene attempted to rescue Loretta but the home was fully engulfed by the time they arrived.

Loretta’s last words were screams that she was on fire.

Snapchat

The county disciplined Captain Williams, not for the response, but for sending a Snapchat video of the fire from the scene.

8 On Your Side obtained the Snapchat investigation documents. Captain Williams told officials conducting an investigation that he took the video for training purposes.

The documents also show that Captain Williams is accused of sending the video to a woman, and later asking her to delete it.

“The only error they made was the captain sending that video,” Halman said.

Sources within Polk County Fire Rescue tell 8 On Your Side that human life should always come first. They provided their policy on two in, two out that notes, “This procedure is not intended to prohibit initially arriving companies from making an emergency rescue in an imminent life-threatening situation.”

Changes made

Following the deadly fire, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office reviewed the 911 call – as well as the dispatch and logs – and decided to make some changes.

“We determined that the call taker followed the protocols and procedures,” the office said in a statement. “We also determined that we would add to our protocols to include a more urgent, repeated, declarative instructions in the rare situations where there is a structure fire and the caller is still inside or possibly trapped inside.”

“As you know, we are heartbroken about Ms. Pickard’s death,” they added. “It was and is a terrible tragedy.”

A spokesperson released a statement to 8 On Your Side stating what the protocol and training now include as of December 2018:

“In rare circumstances, the caller may be trapped inside the building/structure. If this occurs, every attempt must be made to get the caller out of danger.” Also, in cases where after instructions are given to get out of the structure, and the caller is still unable to exit the building, the call taker must provide the following instructions: “’If it’s safe to do so, leave the building, close the doors behind you, and remain outside’ every 30 seconds until the caller exits the building or the call is complete.”

Also: “If while on the call it is determined that the fire department is unable to make entry, and all other means of assistance have been exhausted, the caller must be told to exit the building immediately. If the caller is unsure on how to escape, they must be told to use any means necessary to get out of the structure. In these situations, once protocol is complete, the call taker must tell the caller ‘Help is unable to reach you. You have to get out of the house now, and use any means necessary to do so.’ This phrase must be repeated every 30 seconds until the caller exits the building or the call is complete.”

The new protocol also mandates “that a supervisor must be notified of the situation. Once notified, the supervisor must sit at the position with the call taker and monitor the call to assist when necessary.”

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