“We’ve got a caller advising there’s someone trapped inside the structure.”
That was one of at least six transmissions from a 911 dispatcher that went out to Polk Fire Rescue crews on Nov. 23, informing them someone was trapped inside a burning house.
Capt. James Williams can be heard as he acknowledged this information in audio obtained by 8 On Your Side.
“We were advised there is someone trapped inside the structure,” the 911 dispatcher said. Williams replied, “Copy, responding.”
(Click to hear dispatch audio)
Meanwhile, 76-year-old Loretta Pickard was inside her North Lakeland home and on the phone with 911.
The dispatched told Loretta, “If it’s safe to do so, leave the building, close the door behind you, and remain outside.”
“I’m here alone and I’m on a walker,” Pickard can be heard telling the dispatcher that she had trouble getting around.
The dispatcher worked to calm Loretta, and assured her several times that help was on the way.
When Captain Williams and his crew arrived on the scene, he reported to dispatch, “At this time the structure is half involved.”
Captain Williams then reported over the radio that they were going into “defensive mode,” meaning they started to fight the fire from the outside.
Dispatch audio depicts the chaos at the scene of the home in a heavily wooded area on Rockridge Road, as firefighters mentioned trouble with water sources, and requested more units to respond.
At one point Loretta told the 911 operator she heard sirens outside her home.
As her home filled with smoke, Loretta grew concerned.
“They know I’m here right?” Loretta can be heard asking. The dispatcher replied, “Yes they know you’re in there.”
The dispatched again assured Loretta help was coming for her.
Family members claim Loretta was within feet of the door, yet her rescuers never came.
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.
Halman also said not everything that happened was not in the log.
Yet, 8 On Your Side found that there are no searches or rescue attempts reported in the log, dispatch audio, or the 911 call.
Polk Fire Rescue’s policy, and industry standard is to have two firefighters on the outside before two firefighters go in. 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. 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.
The county disciplined Captain Williams, not for failing to send someone in to save Loretta, but for sending a Snapchat video of the fire from the scene.
“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.”