Outside agency begins investigating Polk fire that killed woman waiting to be rescued

Polk County

An outside agency has officially begun its investigation into Polk County Fire Rescue’s response to a house fire that claimed the life of a woman who was on the phone with 911 inside waiting to be rescued.

Polk County officials tell 8 On Your Side that Emergency Services Consulting International arrived Wednesday and started conducting interviews with Polk County Fire Rescue employees.

ESCI was hired by Polk County last month to investigate a fire in Lakeland that happened in November of 2018 and resulted in the death of 76-year-old Loretta Pickard. That fire has been the subject of several 8 On Your Side investigations this year.

Records show Pickard was on the phone with 911 for 20 minutes inside her burning home. Dispatchers advised her to leave the home if she could, but Pickard explained that she was home alone, on a walker and had trouble getting around.

The dispatchers worked to keep her calm and reassured her that help was on the way. But 8 On Your Side found no attempted search or rescue attempts reported in the logs, dispatch audio or 911 call.

A post-analysis report of the fire conducted by a battalion chief at the scene that night confirmed those findings and outlined what went wrong. That analysis concluded that the first responding crew was inexperienced and likely was overwhelmed by a fire of that magnitude.

Polk County Fire Rescue Captain James Williams, the man who was calling the shots that night, received a 24-hour suspension without pay for sending a Snapchat video from the scene of the fire. He was later removed from his field position and is now on administrative duty while the fire is under investigation.

Polk County signed a contract with ESCI after Pickard’s family and county commissioners called for an investigation into the fire. According to the county, ESCI will provide a “post-incident analysis” of the fire department’s response and “provide recommendations to improve services as a result of the study.”

Investigators started questioning employees on Wednesday. Sources tell 8 On Your Side that employees are being reassured no discipline will come from the findings of the investigation.

ESCI is the consulting firm of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. The man leading the analysis has been identified by the county as Rick Talbert. Talbert is the retiring chief of the South Walton Fire District in Santa Rosa Beach.

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