Firefighters' performance questioned

May 15, 1994|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Sun Staff Writer

A fire that destroyed a Crofton home last month is threatening to stir up new questions about the competence of volunteer firefighters.

Witnesses to the April 27 fire say volunteers from Arundel Company 7 were slow to respond to 1444 Crofton Parkway and then appeared confused and disorganized as they attacked the flames.

No one was injured in the three-alarm fire, which investigators said was ignited by a cigarette tossed into mulch in front of the home. Neighbors rescued four elderly people from the enclosed back porch and the family dog and a parrot.

The home, valued at $165,000 was destroyed, along with contents valued at $85,000.

An investigation by the Anne Arundel County Fire Department may be completed by the end of the month, said Battalion Chief Gary Sheckells. Its results will be made public.

The department routinely reviews its performance after a fire, Chief Sheckells said.

Two former firefighters who were on the scene say the handing of the fire was anything but routine.

"I didn't see anything right," said Jeff Shackelford, who retired from the Prince George's County department in 1988 and lives on Crofton Parkway. "They should have been able to knock that fire down without losing that house the way they did."

A neighbor, Danny Dennis, who retired from the Washington Fire Department in 1985, agreed.

"Guys were standing around looking at each other," he said, adding that he believes the firefighters attacked the fire from the wrong direction.

Another neighbor, Suzan Christmas, climbed through a window to rescue the dog before firefighters arrived. She said that when the first truck arrived, "it looked like they didn't know what to do next."

"They didn't even lay any hoses at first . . . I thought, 'God, is another house going to go before they do something?' " she said.

Chief Sheckells said the fire department will not comment until the investigation is complete.

However, he said, "It is very easy to stand back and criticize what goes on based on the fact that they did not have all the information."

Neighbors say it took firefighters up to 20 minutes to reach the scene. The nearest station is about a mile from the house. Trucks from 10 firehouses, staffed by paid and volunteer firefighters, responded.

"Half the neighborhood complained," said Debbie Eilers, who lives across the street from the home that burned. "My husband went in and out of that house three times before the fire department got there. . . . If they had gotten here when they were called, I know it wouldn't have been as bad."

Chief Sheckells said a computer printout shows the fire was reported to 911 at 2:01 p.m., and the first fire truck arrived at 2:08 p.m. "That is a very acceptable time," he said, adding that in an emergency, "it's highly possible that seven minutes seemed like 20 to some people."

The owner of the destroyed home, Thomas Fowler, is not taking sides. "At this point, I'm not part of the group that was complaining about how it was handled."

He was not at the house when it started to burn, he said, and did not see what the firefighters did.

Mr. Fowler said he hopes if anything did go wrong, the problem is corrected so that no other family will suffer what his family experienced.

Some of the witnesses say it's time for the county to abandon the volunteer system.

"I would rather pay $200 a year more on taxes and have a career fire department," Mr. Shackelford said. "It's not 1960. Let's provide fire protection for 1994."

"There is no reason why we shouldn't have a fully staffed firehouse close by," said Mr. Dennis, whose wife works for a firefighters' union, the International Association of Firefighters. "This is not a little Podunk county any more."

A 10-member Fire Department Study Committee addressed issues causing tensions between paid and volunteer firefighters in its April 14 report to County Executive Robert R. Neall.

The committee's report recommended reinstating the position of volunteer fire chief and giving the county fire administrator more control over volunteer units.

Last Monday, Anne Arundel County Volunteer Fire Chief Roger Neal appeared before the Crofton Civic Association board of directors, to explain his crew's actions.

But board member Ed Ganning made a motion to delay Chief Neal's explanation until the investigation is completed. After the motion failed on a 5-5 vote, Chief Neal declined to speak.

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