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County cites radios and staffing as problems in January fire


Problems hearing a radio transmission and limited staffing at a rural Spotsylvania County fire station delayed the response to a house fire in Lake Wilderness earlier this year, a report shows.

The crew from Wilderness Station 7 on Orange Plank Road took 10 minutes to arrive at the fire, even though the house on Dubin Drive was just 1.3 miles away. Mark Kuechler, who reviewed the fire and is chair of the Fire and EMS Commission, said it should’ve taken five to seven minutes to reach the home. The fire on Jan. 28 destroyed the one-story house and killed 25 of the 27 pets that were inside.

Kuechler and three other officials from the Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management reviewed the incident. One is a paid employee and the others, including Kuechler, are volunteers.

A major cause of the delay was that the firefighters said they did not hear a dispatcher’s announcement to respond in a fire engine, according to a report obtained by The Free Lance–Star.

They initially thought they were supposed to leave the station in a tanker—which provides water for fire engines—and the confusion caused the delay. Officials have been unable to determine why firefighters didn’t hear the announcement over the station’s loudspeakers. 

After a similar situation in March at the same station, however, a radio technician found interfering signals and static.

“This adds up to the potential to miss a transmission or parts of the same,” the report states. “Corrections are ongoing.”

The county has had issues with its emergency radio system over the years and last year hired a consultant to evaluate it for $121,000. County Administrator Doug Barnes said the current system, installed in 1998, is outdated and needs to be replaced. Also, the county’s three radio towers do not provide as much coverage as officials would like, he said.

The consultant’s report will be released soon, Barnes said. It’s unclear if the ongoing issues with the radio system caused delays in responding to the Jan. 28 fire.

The fire report also states that a secondary cause of the delay was the weekend staffing arrangement. Career firefighters are paid overtime to staff Wilderness Station 7 and three other rural stations from 6 p.m. on Fridays until 5 a.m. on Mondays because of a shortage of volunteers.

The fire occurred on a Saturday, and two of the three overtime firefighters normally worked at other stations. None of them could identify the street where the fire was reported from memory. Also, the equipment in the station was set up for a routine response with five fire and rescue workers.

“The reduced number of personnel during the weekend required the juggling of apparatus, which further slowed the response,” according to the report.

The Board of Supervisors this year approved a plan to hire 55 additional fire and rescue employees over the next two years. The hires will eliminate the need for overtime personnel at Wilderness Station 7 and the other rural stations.

Kuechler said the delay did not change the outcome of the fire, based on his review of the incident. Fires “travel quickly in residential settings, and it had a considerable start before it was even called in,” he said. The residents weren’t at home at the time.

Marye Byrd, who lived in the Lake Wilderness house that burned down and is rebuilding on the same site, said she’s disappointed with the delay—whatever the reason. A volunteer crew from a station in the Five-Mile Fork area showed up at about the same time as the firefighters from the much-closer Wilderness Station 7. A volunteer chief who happened to be in the area was the first on the scene.

“I still find that it was unacceptable that people in the station closest to my house were not the first ones there,” Byrd said. “They should’ve been. There’s no excuse for them not to have been.”

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402