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REPORT: Crew inexperienced, could have done more to save Polk woman from fatal fire

Polk County

A newly-released report is shedding more light on what happened the night of a deadly Polk County fire, and what went wrong.

A post-incident analysis was conducted by responding Battalion Chief Jeremiah Gilley and reviewed by other chiefs within the Polk County Fire Rescue agency.

On Nov. 23, 2018, 76-year-old Loretta Pickard died inside her burning home. Pickard was on the phone with 911 pleading for help for 20 minutes, but that help never came.

8 On Your Side revealed the first crew on scene may have never tried to save Loretta, and the newly-released report seems to back that up.

Click here to read full report

The 45-page report from December analyzed the actions of Captain James Williams, the person who was in charge of the scene. The analysis concludes that Captain William’s inexperience, and a scene of this magnitude, likely caused him to become overwhelmed.

“Tactical decisions made by the first in Company Officer (Captain 6) should have been different,” the report reads. “Crew members (Captain and Firefighter) should have exited the apparatus breathing air and headed to the structure with forcible entry tools. Awaiting more personnel for a two-in, two-out rescue, although safer, was not necessary in this situation because of the report of entrapment.”

The report also suggested that a more thorough walk around the home should have been done to try to find a way inside to save Loretta. 

The county told 8 On Your Side that the first crew suffered burns trying to get around the home, citing that as the reason the crew couldn’t save Loretta. Yet, the report highlights that no firefighters were hurt.

“Inexperience did play a part in the initial response and command structure of this event. The captain and firefighter are both inexperienced and are a fair representation of the experience of Polk County Fire Rescue overall due to our recent rapid growth,” according to the report.

The union is currently at an impasse with the county over wages, working conditions, and severe staffing shortages.

In the report, there are several recommendations suggested to fix the public safety issue, including staffing engines with four-person crews, increasing training for engine captains and also better communication from dispatchers to firefighters.

Loretta’s family has been begging the county for answers. The family told 8 On Your Side they prayed really hard and ultimately decided to get an attorney. Their goal is to hold the county accountable and prompt officials to fix the staffing crisis, so no other family has to endure the same pain.

“We pray that our county is safe again and that we know when we call 911, heroes are coming,” Loretta’s niece Amber Addison said.

“That’s honestly the primary concern, one, understanding what happened, and two, it appears there are some failings on the account of Polk County Fire Rescue. And if this can affect change than we hope to do that,” said attorney Christopher Borzell.

The newly-released analysis report contradicts most of what the county has told 8 On Your Side During our investigation.

When asked to comment about the report, the county emailed saying, “Because the work of the outside investigation team has begun, the county cannot comment. As the county manager and Board chairman stated last week, the county wants to learn all of the facts from the fire and then use this as an opportunity to improve the division.”

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, Polk 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.

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,” Deputy County Manager Joe Halman Jr. said.

911 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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