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Published: Thursday, 7/9/2009

Report clears crews in Westmoreland fire; panel: hydrants need color codes

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Mayor Carty Finkbeiner released a report yesterday that exonerates the Toledo Fire Department for its handling of a fire that destroyed a home in the historic Westmoreland district, but at the same time said the city should address water sufficiency problems at fire hydrants.

The mayor appointed a three-person panel to investigate a blaze that destroyed the home of Barbie and Herman Harrison at 1945 Mount Vernon Ave. on June 9. The couple blamed inadequate water volume from a 4-inch water main for the loss of their home.

The panel, which made several recommendations to the fire department, also said the city should go back to color-coding low-flow hydrants.

In a letter yesterday to Mr. and Mrs. Harrison, Mr. Finkbeiner said: "I sincerely regret that this accident occurred and the dramatic effect it has on you and your family. I hope that this independent report has helped answer your questions."

Mrs. Harrison told The Blade last night the report didn't answer her questions.

"I have scanned it and I'm not sure what it's really saying," she said. "My reaction is the whole thing is really disgusting because it doesn't say anything."

Mrs. Harrison added: "I agree that the city needs to assure safety for all of its citizens, but as far as the report itself, it's not saying anything. It's disgusting. It's nothing."

Although the report was complete Tuesday night, the mayor refused to release it to the public until 7 p.m. yesterday.

The report said, "The fire was more advanced than would be readily apparent to an untrained observer. In many instances a 4[-inch] main will be sufficient. However, in this instance due to the advanced stage of the fire when the fire department [arrived], it probably was not."

Firefighters were using water from a hydrant that is hooked up to a 4-inch main line. When they tried to hook up to another hydrant on the same waterline, it did not function properly.

It took firefighters almost an hour to tap into a 6-inch water main a block away before they had more water pressure.

The report acknowledges firefighters did not hook into a 6-inch main until late in the firefighting effort.

"Late in the operation, long after the incident commander realized that the building couldn't be saved, the Fire Department obtained sufficient water flow from a 6[-inch] main on an adjacent street to put the fire out," the report states.

The panel found that the fire department "operated within its protocols," but then suggested it modify its response methods.

The report recommended that the fire department know the available gallons per minute for all city hydrants; computerize the gallons per minute and line location data; practice response drills in low-water-flow areas, and consider color-coding hydrants to denote chronic low-flow hydrants.

The city previously color-coded 4-inch-line hydrants to warn fire crews that the water volume might not be adequate, but former fire department officials have told The Blade that the color-coded hydrants disappeared when Mayor Finkbeiner ordered hydrants painted green in the 1990s to help beautify the city.

"The fire department should reconsider having a fire officer in the dispatch center to assist with hydrant overlays and anticipate needs on the foreground," the report also states.

The panel that issued the report consisted of Doni Miller, former president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority Board of Directors; Douglas Nims, a civil engineering professor at the University of Toledo, and William Kramer, director of fire service at the University of Cincinnati, who recently was employed by the city of Sylvania to study its fire department.

Mr. Nims said the panel examined reports from each fire truck at the scene, the battalion chief in command, a fire investigator, as well as listened to the 911 recording, and the recording of a dispatcher talking with firefighters on the scene.

They also met with the Harrisons, the Westmoreland Association, and the city's department of utilities.

"They have to address the low flow on a citywide basis," Mr. Nims said last night.

Since the blaze, the fire department has distributed to all the city's fire stations lists of streets with hydrants served only by 4-inch mains.

Fire officials have said responding crews probably did not know that the hydrant to which they connected to extinguish the blaze was on a 4-inch water main.

Fire Chief Michael Wolever previously said inadequate water volume and delay in notification were two factors in the destruction of the Harrisons' house, but yesterday said he believes even if firefighters had access to a hydrant on a 6-inch water main sooner it wouldn't have made a difference in saving the Harrisons' house.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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