ST PETERSBURG TIMES--Hillsborough County

Fire puts focus on response policies
City firefighters could have been at the April 25 Branchton blaze in five minutes. The county dispatcher never called them and a home was lost.
By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 25, 2003

BRANCHTON - Charles and Deb Havre were away when lightning struck their white clapboard house on Morris Bridge Road during an April 25 rainstorm.

As fire swept through their home, Deb Havre's parents, who live in a cottage out back, dialed 911. Help should have been five minutes away with a city fire station four miles west on Cross Creek Boulevard.

Within 10 minutes, flames swallowed the Havre's home.

Still no engines.

As the inferno climbed higher, illuminating the night sky, Havre's mother called 911 again.

Turns out, her calls for help never reached the city fire station. Instead, a county dispatcher sent the calls to a fire station 20 minutes away - in Thonotosassa.

The dispatcher hadn't necessarily made a mistake. The Havres live outside the city limits and the closest county fire station was the one in Thonotosassa.

Poking through the scorched skeleton of their home a month after the fire, family members say they learned a brutal lesson about government boundaries.

If the house had been on the west side of Morris Bridge Road, and therefore in the city, it might have been salvaged.

"Can you believe what a difference 50 feet makes?" said Havre's mother, Fay Palen.

As booming New Tampa subdivisions surge closer to this rustic town of about 400 known as Branchton, the physical boundaries between the two communities are blurred.

But when it comes to emergency aid, the 50-foot width of Morris Bridge might as well span 50 miles.

The blaze has set off a hotly contested blame game between Tampa and Hillsborough County firefighters.

The county says Tampa has resisted a comprehensive dispatch system that would have prevented the destruction of the Havre's home. City officials say the county should have called them that night. They say that call never came because county dispatchers didn't have accurate mapping data that would have told them that Cross Creek Boulevard extended all the way to Morris Bridge Road.

"This is a classic example of turf war," said Karl Schmitt, president of the Hillsborough County Firefighters' union. "And in the process, the greater good of public safety is being sacrificed."

So close and yet so far

Nestled among majestic live oaks, sweet gum and palm trees on eight acres of Florida wilderness, the Havre's home always seemed secluded from real world concerns.

When they moved there nine years ago, wild hogs, bobcats and turkey roamed the estate. The buzz of locusts drowned out other sounds heard from the front stoop of the 40-year-old house.

But in recent months, loud rumblings have intruded. Diesel engines can be heard from across the street, where Morris Bridge Road meets the newly extended Cross Creek Boulevard. Back hoes and tractors upturn cow pasture to make room for a Publix.

New Tampa peers at the Havres from across the street.

But when they needed New Tampa the most, its proximity was a mirage.

"It baffles me that the city wasn't called," Deb Havre said. "We're in a no-man's land out here, and nobody knows what to do with us."

Schmitt and the county's fire chief, Bill Nesmith, say the April 25 fire proves the need for a new emergency system. They propose a massive dispatch center that would direct calls to the nearest fire station, without considering governmental boundaries.

Dubbed "closest-unit response," the system would require Plant City, Tampa, Temple Terrace and the county to share resources in emergencies.

"This is solely about public safety," Nesmith said. "If we had this system in place, the city would have been at that fire in five minutes."

Tampa officials have resisted such a system for the last 10 years, saying it would weaken the city's ability to protect itself. If city engines fight fires in remote county hinterlands, parts of the city would be left exposed, the argument goes.

Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Bill Wade contends that county fire officials are exploiting the Havre fire to gain a political advantage.

"There was an attempt to make us look bad when we haven't done anything wrong," Wade said.

The city would be happy to provide protection for Branchton, he said, if the county pays for it. Already, the county pays Tampa $168,000 every year to protect those parts of New Tampa - Cross Creek, Pebble Creek, Live Oak and Wharton High School - outside the city.

"If the city can agree to cover this area, why can't the city cover the rest of the area?" Wade said. "They need to come to us in a professional manner and say: These citizens deserve better."

There's already an agreement dating back to the 1960s that allows the city to help the county, and vice versa. If the county had called the night of April 25, the city would have answered, Wade said.

In 2002, the city averaged 42 calls a month from the county for assistance, Wade said. The county averaged only six calls a month where it helped the city.

That disparity would grow worse in a closest-unit response system, Wade said.

That's because the city has placed its stations so that firefighters can respond within an average of 5.2 minutes. About 610 employees cover 112 square miles and a population of 300,000. The county, by contrast, has 737 employees who cover 1,296 square miles and a population of 645,000.

But county firefighters say the current system is absurd. Schmitt, of the county firefighter's union, points to the county station behind University Square Mall as Exhibit A. If there was an accident in the mall parking lot, the station would respond, he said. But if the accident were just a few feet south into Fowler Avenue, a city fire station miles away would answer the call.

"This kind of thing happens all the time," Schmitt said. "We find that accidents, fires and other emergencies rarely stay in neat little jurisdictional boundaries. To improve service, we all need to work together to come up with a better system."

Nesmith wants 90 days to test a closest-unit response system.

Merely expanding the New Tampa contract area to include Branchton is not a solution, he said.

"No matter how you expand the contract area, you'll always have a dividing line where the contract doesn't cover," Nesmith said. "If we have a closest-unit response, we'll take away that line."

In the case of the April 25 fire, Nesmith did not know why the dispatcher didn't realize there was a city station down the road on Cross Creek.

Tracy Walker, president of the Tampa Firefighters Union, said he heard that the dispatcher was working off old data that didn't show Cross Creek Boulevard had been extended to Morris Bridge.

Tampa assistant fire marshall Todd Spear heard that very explanation at a meeting May 12, attended by city officials and a representative from the county's Emergency Dispatch Center.

Without the extended road, firefighters from the Cross Creek station would have to drive down Bruce B. Downs Boulevard to Interstate 75, drive south, and drive west on Morris Bridge - a 13-mile trip. Or, Spear said, they would have to cut through gated communities with narrow, winding streets.

But the Cross Creek extension has existed for a year, with an estimated 24,000 vehicles traveling the road every day.

"There's no reason why the county shouldn't have known that this road had been extended," Spear said.

It doesn't matter, explained Joni Taylor, the manager for the county Emergency Dispatch Center. Regardless of who knew about the road and who didn't, the computer data base would seek out only county vehicles.

The county normally does not call the city until after its own vehicles have arrived, or if it has exhausted its resources, Taylor said.

That's not how Spear, the assistant city fire marshal, understands it.

"It's very simple," he said. "If you call us, we'll come out. If we call you, you'll come out." He described the April 25 situation as "a glitch," and no reason to overhaul a system that usually works.

In the next few weeks, the city and county will update the 911 system, Taylor said. Morris Bridge probably won't see a repeat of April 25.

But Nesmith said a closer-unit response system would prevent something like this happening again elsewhere in the county.

Throwing darts

Whether county and city officials can sit down and hash out a solution remains to be seen.

The county's union chief, Schmitt, says Tampa has been throwing "poisonous darts" at the county's proposal all along.

"They've just refused to sit down and consider the plan," Schmitt said. "The cooperation should be there, but it's not."

His counterpart in the city, Walker, wrote a 4-page memo this week that called Schmitt a "puppet union president." The April 25 fire a was a dispatch "blunder", Walker said, that exposed the county's inability to protect its territory from fire damage.

"Karl is a loose cannon when it comes to this issue," Walker said. "He allowed (Nesmith) to use him as a pawn."

Mayor Pam Iorio seems somewhat more receptive to the closer-unit response idea than former Mayor Dick Greco. But the ill will threatens to spoil the chances of a major agreement.

Nesmith attended the May 12 meeting with city officials. But Tampa Fire Chief Pete Botto, who is about to retire, did not attend.

"That was considered a snub," Schmitt said.

City officials said the county didn't bring any plans to the meeting.

"The only plan that they had was for us to cover their territory," Wade said. "That's not a plan."

Nesmith wants a task force to study the issue, and how Pinellas County has managed a similar response system. Temple Terrace and Plant City said they will participate, he said, but Tampa has not.

Deb Havre said her State Farm insurance covered the damage, so she's not worried about what will happen to her family.

But she said she wants the city and county to agree fast on something that would improve service out in Branchton.

"They need to set aside their egos and work something out," Havre said. "These people can't continue living out here in this gray area."

- Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 269-5312 or mvansickler@sptimes.com