Frustration mounts after fire
By April Hunt | Sentinel Staff Writer
December 4, 2002

BUENAVENTURA LAKES, Fla -- Ed Shaw sat in his neighbor's house Tuesday with nothing more than the clothes on his back, his two dogs and cell phone. He had lost nearly everything in a freak double fire that consumed his $250,000 home.

The first, an electrical fire that broke out while Shaw was watching Monday Night Football, forced him to lose power. The fire was put out at 12:04 a.m. Tuesday, 40 minutes after it was reported.

But without electricity, he couldn't use his breathing machine that allows him to lie down and sleep. It was only because he was upright in his recliner, trying to doze after Osceola County firefighters left, that he heard the crackling flames at 4:27 a.m. on the other side of the house.

Shaw and his dogs Percy and Pirssy escaped. But Shaw said he waited 10 minutes for firefighters to respond and at least another 10 minutes before they had the water trucked in to douse the flames. In those 20 minutes, he said, the flames spread from one side of his two-story house to another, reducing it to rubble.

Yet he has no sorrow for being a grandfather who must start over in life. What Shaw has is frustration at what happened, and hope that it will wake up residents and politicians alike.

"Maybe this is the eye-opener for this county, that we cannot have this sort of growth and rely on volunteer fire stations," he said. "Maybe this is God's way of saying Ed Shaw is going to lose his house, so no one ever has to lose a life."

Fire service in Osceola has been the source of controversy and debate for more than a year. In October 2001, after a series of blunders by volunteer firefighters, the county folded its longstanding volunteer force under the county Fire Department.

In doing so, the county lost some volunteers and has struggled to properly train those who remained. Tension between some of the paid and volunteer firefighters erupted at County Commission meetings, both pointing fingers at the other for service problems.

The budget year that began Oct. 1 was supposed to change that. County commissioners approved a $9.32 increase in the annual fire fee that homeowners pay. That would generate $554,000 to spend on 25 new firefighters, including a training officer, and two new engines.

Osceola has so far hired only about half of the firefighters approved, and the new trucks have yet to be delivered. Volunteer stations operate in densely populated areas such as Buenaventura Lakes, and those firefighters can choose not to answer a call.

Because of that, Shaw and the local firefighters union both say the county has lost one house and could lose more.

Volunteers run all but one of the tankers in Osceola's fire system. So while county records show a paid crew responded in nine minutes, there was no tanker truck available to haul in water to beat back the flames on the home, said Todd Smith, a steward with the Osceola Professional Firefighters Local 3284.

A tanker did eventually come -- from Orange County's station in Lake Nona, more than 12 miles away.

"If we had a paid crew in that [closest] station, we could have been here in five minutes and should have been able to knock that fire down," Smith said. "What if someone was inside? We need our firefighters to be in immediate motion."

County spokeswoman Twis Hoang did not return a phone call seeking comment. In a news release that included a timeline of the two fires and how the county responded, Hoang wrote that firefighters "checked the structure for any re-kindles and determined there were none," and left at 12:50 a.m.

Commissioner Ken Shipley said he had not gotten answers regarding response times and whether volunteer firefighters showed up at Shaw's home at 2820 Nicole Ave.

However, Shipley said the county could not just "go out on the street and hire firefighters" because of various educational and physical requirements for the job.

He added that he wants to wait on a consultant who is preparing a five-year plan for the county's fire service before deciding what step to take next.

"I think the volunteer organization is good. The piece that is missing is every station ought to have paid fire and EMS people," he said. "I want to wait on the plan to tell us how to get there."

Shaw, who sells and leases commercial trucks, had kind words for firefighters who arrived from Orange and Osceola. Several of them lifted his 2000 Corvette, moving the yellow convertible away from the raging house to deeper in the driveway, where his 1998 Corvette was safe.

He said their action saved him at least $100,000 and made him feel that the firefighters were doing all they could for him.

April Hunt can be reached at ahunt@orlandosentinel.com or 407-931-5940.


Copyright 2002, Orlando Sentinel

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