Following deadly fire, Polk Co willing to spend millions to improve public safety


BARTOW, Fla. (WFLA) – It could cost Polk County millions of dollars to improve public safety following a deadly fire in November that exposed an inexperienced crew that could have done more to save a life.

An 8 On Your Side investigation uncovered what went wrong the night Loretta Pickard, 76, died in a North Lakeland home.

A report by the Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI), an outside company, appeared to back many of the findings 8 On Your Side had revealed.

Fire crews did not try to rescue Pickard, who was on the phone with 911 dispatch for 12 minutes before she died.

In March, Captain James Williams resigned following accusations that he sent videos of the fire and lied about it. He was on scene the night of the fire and never made entry into the home.

Former Fire Chief Tony Stravino announced his retirement in May.

For an in-depth timeline of events, click here.

On Tuesday, Interim Polk County Fire Rescue Chief Rob Weech laid out ESCI’s key findings and recommendations on how to improve public safety moving forward.

“If you choose to adopt all of the key findings immediately, we would approximate a $5.5 million recurring charge, one time cost of about $3.4 million,” Interim Chief Weech told the Polk County Board of Commissioners.

Weech told reporters the events of November 23, 2018 are carried inside the members of Polk Fire Rescue.

“Certainly an area of growth for us and an improved focus on what’s important for us. Certainly our sympathies go out to the families,” he said.

Recommendations include 5,000 hours of training for captains, battalion chiefs and officer candidates and an annual 40 hour officer development class. That class carries a yearly cost of $300,000.

“This is the one that I feel most strongly about. When we talk about decision making on the fire ground, I think an officer development class is certainly necessary, even with an experienced officer,” said Chief Weech.

ESCI also recommends building a training facility that could cost $10 million – $25 million.

“We are a metropolitan community. We stretch many miles. We have 600 or so firefighters in place so in order to train and develop properly a training facility is needed,” said Chief Weech.

To pay for it, commissioners want to increase the fire fee for unincorporated single family homes to $206 per year.

They raised it by $10 per year in February.

“What we heard is that $10 is not going to be enough to stretch to these new obligations. So the consensus of the board today was to increase that by not $10, but $15,” said George Lindsey, chair of the board of commissioners.

That would increase funds from the fire fee by $3.5 million, according to Lindsey.

“Whether it’s on the police side or the fire side or the EMS ambulance side, public safety is what we do first, everything else comes after that,” said Lindsey.

The board asked the chief to prioritize the items and come back with a recommendation.

The board is willing to do what it takes, Lindsey said.

Pickard’s family filed an intent to sue the county in April.

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