MIAMI HERALD

Can the county handle port fires?
City officials say Dade is struggling to meet standards for emergencies
BY KARL ROSS
kross@herald.com

Following the deadly engine-room explosion aboard the SS Norway eight days ago, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue officers told reporters they were on the scene within a minute of the blast.

Left unsaid was that the county's initial dispatch of four firefighters -- from its marine unit at the Port of Miami-Dade itself -- was only a fraction of the contingent required under fire-safety standards.

The first wave of rescue workers to board the stricken vessel, it turned out, was composed largely of city of Miami firefighters.

That's because they can get there in roughly half the time it takes comparable numbers of county firefighters, who have primary jurisdiction at the seaport, to arrive.

Within half an hour of the explosion, 52 city fire-rescue workers were on the scene. Those who came from the Northeast Fifth Street station, only blocks away, were there in as little as six minutes.

Without the city's help, Miami-Dade would be hard-pressed to comply with the National Fire Protection Association's standard for emergencies at the seaport, Miami fire officials say. They say the standard calls for at least 17 firefighters on the scene of a disaster within nine minutes of the 911 call.

The lack of a financial agreement between the two departments has turned into a sore point. More important, it raises questions about the county's ability to respond to a shipboard fire.

The first 10 minutes of a blaze are considered critical to prevent it from reaching what firefighters call a ''flashover'' -- the point at which flames engulf a room and can spread to adjoining structures.

A spokesman for the county's fire department, Louie Fernández, confirmed that only four Miami-Dade firefighters were on the scene during the first nine minutes, but he said the standard -- a voluntary guideline -- was unduly stringent.

Reinforcements from the county's fire-rescue department didn't arrive for at least 10 minutes. Most took longer.

''The national average for response time is between five and eight minutes,'' Fernández said.

``I don't think there's any fire department in the country that can get 17 firefighters at a major incident like this.''

No one from either department suggested that a larger initial county response would have reduced the number of casualties aboard the Norway. A release of scalding steam from a ruptured boiler killed seven crew members and left more than a dozen hospitalized.

`MUTUAL AID'

The county, which owns and operates the seaport, is allowed to draw upon the resources of other fire departments through ''mutual aid'' agreements.

In a telephone interview, Miami Fire Chief William ''Shorty'' Bryson said the county's reliance on city firefighters raises some financial issues. He said he intends to meet with county fire officials to discuss compensation for the city. Bryson said he hopes the issue can be worked out amicably.

''Mutual aid is there to benefit all of the departments,'' Bryson said. ``But mutual aid is not to be abused.''

Bryson was careful to say he did not believe the county had abused its mutual aid pact with the city -- in this instance. But he did say that given the many perils of responding to calls at the seaport, a more equitable arrangement is needed.

FUNDING ENDED

The county used to pay the city between $300,000 and $400,000 a year to oversee fire safety at the seaport, but that arrangement ended in the mid-1990s when the county opened a station there.

''In this case they complied with the [NFPA safety] standard because of us,'' Bryson said. ``But I wouldn't want to make that a standard way of doing business.''

The standards were prepared by the NFPA's 30-member technical committee, which includes one Miami-Dade firefighter, and are considered the industry's ``Bible.''

Fernández, the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue spokesman, said that within half an hour the county had about 35 firefighters at the Norway.

He said two fire-rescue units from a Liberty City station arrived within 10 minutes, transporting eight firefighters. Two minutes later, another unit arrived from the Miami Shores station -- raising the county's total to 16 firefighters.

Fernández said the county's alarm office requested a single fire truck from the city, not a large-scale response.

``We never even called the city. We did not request mutual aid. We did not ask the city to respond.''

He indicated that no additional assistance was needed from the city, because county personnel had matters under control.

Fernández said mutual-aid agreements cut both ways, stressing that county firefighters routinely respond to calls on the fringes of Miami and elsewhere.

''And you would figure it cuts more our way because we're the larger department,'' he said.

MORE HELP NEEDED

Miami officials say the situation aboard the Norway was so chaotic at the time their fire engine arrived that additional units were summoned. Within 15 minutes, 44 city rescuers were on the scene assisting injured crew members, they say.

''The bottom line is you don't just have one unit with four guys there for something like this,'' said Miami's assistant fire chief, Joe Fernández.

``How did the patients get to the hospital? I don't think they got to the hospital with them. They got there with us.''

As many as 50 city firefighters could be mobilized and arrive at the seaport within 10 minutes of a 911 call, culling emergency personnel from the three closest stations, Miami's Chief Fernandez said.

Had the Norway explosion occurred during a weekday morning with rush-hour traffic, the county's response times would have been far slower, the Miami official said.

Fernandez added the need for additional firefighters would have been even more critical had the Norway's engine room caught fire.

Fernandez said fires within a ship's steel-encased hull can turn into infernos with temperatures so intense rescuers can only withstand brief periods of exposure.

He said ship fires, not uncommon along the Miami River, usually require an initial dispatch of at least 27 firefighters.