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Date of Issue: April 30, 2008

Homeowner still has questions about 58th Street fire

Photo by Arthur Valadie

With a house surrounded on two sides by water and a 30,000 gallon pool upwind of the fire that ravaged his home April 17, Holmes Beach resident Kent Davis and a number of bystanders were left wondering why firefighters couldn’t pump from the bay or Davis’ swimming pool.

As the West Manatee Fire & Rescue District fire truck first on the scene discharged the 750 gallons it carried onto the house, other firefighters scrambled to get a hose hooked up to the nearest hydrant, about 1,200 feet away on Flotilla Drive at 56th Street, to keep water flowing.

It apparently wasn’t that easy and for several precious minutes, perhaps longer, Davis and others saw no water being pumped as his house was consumed by flames.

WMFR Chief Andy Price confirmed the situation. The holding tank was all the water they had while they awaited the hookup on Flotilla Drive.

With the initial shock of losing his house, personal possessions and priceless book collection now wearing off, Davis has now had time to wonder what happened.

Davis believes firefighters should have been able to throw a hose into his pool and use either a portable pump or a pump on the fire truck to begin getting water on the fire within minutes.

The reason they didn’t just “start pumping” is because WMFR does not have a portable pump.

“What’s a pump cost?” asked Davis.

“All they had to do was throw a suction hose into my pool or the bay and pump using the truck. What I saw was them spraying water against the wind. It was really agonizing watching my house burn to the ground.”

But Davis is not sounding “sour grapes” about the fire. He realizes it’s easy to play “Monday morning quarterback,” but he’s the one who has lost everything, and he has questions. He’s just seeking some answers.

Davis does understand firefighters were up against a 20-mph wind and no one was inside the house by the time fire trucks arrived — meaning no lives were in danger.

“I would not have wanted anyone to go inside the house. I would not have wanted anyone to risk their lives,” he said. But he’s a man who has just seen his house go up in flames while firefighters battled to get water and ignored his pool just a few feet from the house.

“I have a 30,000 gallon pool and I question why they didn’t use that or pump water out of the bay upwind of the fire. The pool was upwind,” said Davis.

Even after the agonizing wait while firefighters ran 1,200 feet of hose, Davis said, he “didn’t see them getting a lot of water on my house.”

A disturbed Davis added, “It seemed like a lot of manpower and expensive equipment on the site, but I just didn’t see a lot of water pumping. I don’t know if they went behind my house, which was upwind, but I only saw them fighting the fire into the wind. I understand they only had 750 gallons of water on the truck. A small, cheap portable pump might have resulted in a different situation. That might be needed on this island. We’re surrounded by water.”

Price said WMFR did have firefighters behind the house — 12 of them with four hoses.

Also, it’s not that easy to carry a portable pump, said Price, and it’s not that simple to pump water out of a pool or from Tampa Bay or the Gulf of Mexico.

“You have to have stabilized ground for the truck to be able to suck the water. And trying to draft water out of Tampa Bay might have gotten you anything, like muck or seaweed,” said Price.

In addition, the truck would have had to get within 20 feet of the water source, be it pool or bay, because WMFR  uses a rigid line to pump from a pool or other water source. Firefighters were unable to get within that distance, he said.

And this is an issue that’s been around for some time, Price noted.

“This has been a question for years. People don’t understand the dynamics of pumping. We would have had to get the truck right next to the pool and you really can’t get a truck to it.”

In addition, the WMFR trucks do not carry portable pumps, he added.

Price said portable pumps only generate a small amount of water and they have to be small enough for a firefighter to carry.

Pumping out of a pool or a canal might seem “suitable,” but it “may not be practical,” he said.

“There was no way to drive around the house to get to that pool,” Price maintained.

 He noted that the department’s fireboat was not used because of manpower.

The boat might have aided in fighting the fire, but the boat is designed for fighting marine fires. And it would have taken firefighters away from fighting the fire to staff the boat, Price observed.

“And remember, the wind was blowing 20 mph and we had an accessibility problem. We had to get behind the fire. If there was no wind that night, it could have been a different story.”

Possibly, said retired firefighter Dave Tuemler, who inspected the scene later on April 17. But portable pumping units are standard equipment for fire trucks he was associated with during his 24 years as a firefighter.

Tuemler retired as a lieutenant with the Covington, Ky., Fire Department after 24 years and said that in his opinion, there was planning failure associated with the loss.

His units always carried a portable pump that could put 250 gallons a minute on a fire, and he questioned why WMFR doesn’t have similar equipment. Such a pump sells for about $600 and could have been pumping from the pool in a few minutes or less, he claimed.

In addition, firefighters “should have known they had no hydrant on that street,” said Tuemler.

“It’s pathetic to think they were so close to the fire and it took that long to get water on the fire,” he noted. The WMFR station is about .4 mile from the Davis house.

“Plus, it was ludicrous to fight that fire with an aerial truck. They should have gone upwind. They could have come in from behind the house with a portable. They did a poor job at best and any homeowner on that street is at risk if they have a fire.”

He said insurance companies will review the fire report and adjust their rates accordingly when they realize there’s no hydrant on 58th Street.

“That planning was extremely poor,” Tuemler reiterated.

That’s an assessment with which Joey Carmell of Florida Executive Builders agreed.

Carmell was at the fire scene on April 17 as an independent representative of the insurance carrier to see if he could provide Davis with any emergency services.

As a former volunteer fireman, Carmell says he carried a portable pump on his truck when fighting a fire.

“You don’t need to get your truck right next to a water source with a portable unit,” he said. Carmell maintained that portable firefighting units that can utilize just about any water source and are standard equipment on quite a number of fire trucks.

“From what I saw of the wind direction, a portable unit could have been drawing water from that pool safely. I wasn’t at the fire, but that’s just my opinion.”

Price, however, defended the actions of the firefighters.

“We did the best we could with what we had. We were up against the wind blowing in our faces and [the truck] couldn’t access the back.”

Additionally, the fire had spread through the roof by the time units arrived. Price indicated one truck arrived on the scene about three minutes after the first alarm.

Davis, although questioning the strategy, praised the firefighters for their efforts.

“They worked extremely hard and were extremely kind to us. I want to give them thanks. They did the best they with the plan.”

But with the hydrant far away, it took too long to get water on the fire and there were no portable units on the trucks, Davis noted.

And Davis acknowledged that Price has some good points about the difficulty of fighting the fire.

Still, explanations of winds, hydrant locations, manpower, stabilizing trucks and how many gallons of water the fire trucks carry are small consolations to anyone who has just seen their house go up in flames.

“You’re looking at a man who lost everything but his life,” said Davis. “It’s pretty hard for me to look at what’s left.”


Portable pumps a “good deal”

While West Manatee Fire and Rescue District trucks and personnel don’t carry portable pumps, a number of barrier island communities on Florida’s west coast have such equipment as a standard feature on their fire trucks.

Capt. Brian Duncan of the Sanibel Island Fire Department said portable pumps “are a good deal, especially if you’re in a city without a lot of hydrants.”

Duncan used to work for the Fort Myers Fire Department and portable pumps are standard equipment on all trucks for that department.

“They’re very good for getting water on a fire quickly or when you can’t get the truck close,” he said. And some of pumps are so light, one person can easily carry one, Duncan indicated.

On Fort Myers Beach, Capt. Dave Munyon said his department’s trucks used to carry portable pumps, but found they didn’t need them because of the proliferation of fire hydrants in the city. However, portable units are now standard equipment on the city’s fire boats, he said.

Munyon said a number of different companies make portable units, with prices ranging from about $2,000 to $8,000.

“Like anything, it just depends upon your need and what you want to spend,” he said.

In fact, WMFR’s neighbor to the south, the Longboat Key Fire Department, apparently has a need for such equipment. The department has a portable pump that it keeps ready for use at the station.