Fire and EMS recovery under way

Stations being prepared for next Charley


There will not be a repeat of what happened during Hurricane Charley as far as Charlotte County Fire & EMS responses and actions are concerned.

Chief Dennis DiDio said he will never forget Aug. 13, 2004.

He brought his family to Station 12 on Rampart Boulevard in Deep Creek to keep them safe. More than 70 people fled to the station during and immediately after the storm.

Meanwhile, he was ordered to the Emergency Operations Center near the Charlotte County Airport.

During the height of the storm he ordered the evacuation of the EOC and started hearing from his firefighters at the various fire stations that dot the county.

The calls were blood-curdling to the veteran firefighter.

As roofs collapsed, the people who are the first responders to help began calling for help reporting they themselves were trapped, including at the station where his family was.

"It is something I won't forget and I won't let happen again," DiDio said. "I'm going to fix it."

The evaluation of what happened and how to prevent the same mistakes from happening again started as soon as the chaos of the first week was over.

"I will never consider a bad brush fire bad again," he said. "After what we went through, everything from now on will be a piece of cake."

DiDio wants to have better control of the immediate response in the first few days following a hurricane by being prepared for supply problems and strengthening the fire stations.

He also wants to coordinate better staging areas for ice and water because in the days immediately following Charley, many of the ice stations were in front of fire houses.

"That just did not work," he said. "We had a traffic jam in front and we couldn't get out. We will have a map and put these stations where there is good access."

Organizing staging areas for the incoming help from the state and federal level will also be better planned.

The county will implement an incident command structure, which means the county administrator, sheriff and fire chief would be in charge of all rescue, health and safety operations.

DiDio said it was chaotic in the first few days following the hurricane as each agency worked independently of each other and not together.

"We will work that out," he said.

The chief also plans to have better supplies on hand since the gasoline shortage was unexpected, as was the length of time the area was without power and reliable phone service.

"I am organizing local companies in Southwest Florida to supply us for the first few days," DiDio said.

He has also vowed to harden each of his fire stations to make sure they can withstand another Charley and be even stronger.

Nearly every fire station needed repairs or a complete rebuild.

The station that had one of the most potentially serious collapses was Station 1 on U.S. 41 at Easy Street.

Firefighters were trapped inside and if the expected storm surge had arrived with Charley, DiDio said he would have lost everyone there.

"We were very lucky none of our people were killed," he said.

Station 1 was already on the chopping block to be rebuilt, but its plans went back to the drawing board to upgrade and "harden" the building.

Hardening means the walls will be thicker, the floors raised and the roofs tied down even better.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is picking up 90 percent of the upgrades since it comes under the health and safety priorities of the agency.

Station 7 on Ash Street, just off Rio Villa Drive, which was also destroyed and is being used as a training site to practice roof collapses, will likely be relocated to the Charlotte County Airport. There are three other fire stations that would cover the area where the station is now.

The plan calls for the station to include a so-called "crash truck," which will mean the airport would be able to accept larger planes, a key to its expansion.

While stations 1 and 7 are being rebuilt, the county is working to repair the 11 other stations that had damage.

Other station repairs range from minor roof fixes, which have been completed, to total gutting and remodeling.

The chief is also adding three stations, Nos. 8, 15 and 16.

County Director of Facilities and Construction Maintenance Mike Sheridan said if each of the new and replacement stations remain on schedule, all of the work is expected to be completed by the end of 2006 or early 2007.

"We have a good plan to get this done," Sheridan said.

Most of the changes will not be noticeable in the day-to-day operations of the Fire & EMS services, DiDio said.

"We learned a lot of lessons and we are fixing them," he said.

You can e-mail Bob Reddy at breddy@sun-herald.com.

By BOB REDDY

Staff Writer