Home burns: owners angry

Author: Susan K. Lamb, Democrat Managing Editor
Publication Date: 2005-06-08

The home of a former Broward fire chief, Don Todd, in Wellborn, was a stinking mess this week as it and the family's car lay in total ruin after a fire early June 4 completely destroyed the home and car. The unmistakable smell of burned materials was in the air, soot was on the ground and in a neighbor's yard and pool and one of the family's white dogs was now gray from investigating the fire site.

Although the home is about a mile from the Wellborn Volunteer Fire Department and the county's Fire/Rescue is nearly 12 miles away, the first people to arrive on scene, the family said, was two deputies about a minute after the 911 call was made, then County Fire/Rescue followed by Wellborn's volunteers. From there, the family said, it was a blur of activity and people, but still the home was lost.

While the family thought it took more than 30 minutes for help to arrive, according to County Fire records it took 17 minutes from the time the call arrived at county dispatch until the county units were on scene.

"If I had only had a water hose, I could have put that fire out," said homeowner Don Todd this week as he mourned the loss of his home and life's possessions. But, Todd and his wife, Jo, admit, they are blessed beyond description because they, their precious 4-year-old granddaughter and their animals were all spared. Still, the couple, married 46 years and in their 60s, said some of the efforts of volunteer fire fighters appeared to them to be less than professional as the Todds watched their home burn while they said mistake after mistake was made in the fire fighting process early Saturday morning. "If you have ever watched Keystone Cops, it was here!" Todd said, shaking his head with tears in his eyes.

The couple both said they thought they called 911 on the cell phone at 3:30 a.m. because as they escaped the house the clock showed that time. The house phone was not working because the power was off, they said. As it turns out, the electricity had been disrupted due to the fire and the call actually came in at 3:58 a.m., according to Suwannee County Fire records. No electricity is the reason Todd, a veteran fire fighter, could not put the fire out, he said.

The Todds said while their granddaughter was spending the weekend with them, she was sleeping with Jo, and Don Todd slept in the room they had prepared for the child. That arrangement may have saved the family's lives. Todd said because he's a light sleeper and was in the child's room, he heard the familiar crackling sound of fire in the early morning hours and knew instantly what was happening. He immediately awakened his wife and granddaughter and hustled them down the stairs, grabbing two baby kittens they were caring for and got out of the house. "If my husband hadn't been in the little granddaughter's bedroom, we would have all died," said Jo on Monday.

Still, the Todds say some of their belongings, which included a large doll collection, antiques, coin collection and Jo's family heirlooms, could have been saved if more professionalism had been shown. "This county commission and this (volunteer) fire service cost me my home," Todd said.

Todd said the career fire fighters arrived on scene first and did a great job of knocking down the fire. "Those boys went up stairs and knocked that fire down," he said. But, he said, while fighting the fire, they ran out of water.

According to County Fire/Rescue reports written by Lt. Eddie Hand, he instructed Tanker 51 (Wellborn) to supply his engine with water and then three county fire fighters went into the home. Meanwhile, a propane tank next to the garage began venting and Wellborn volunteers were instructed to cool down the tank and start extinguishing the car fire. As the three fire fighters inside the house made good progress and there was no longer any danger of fire spreading from the garage, Hand said in the report the three went to the second floor where the men "continued making progress extinguishing fire." It was then the water in Engine 1 of County Fire/Rescue ran out of water. Hand went outside to find out about the water supply situation and told Station 51 (Wellborn) “to hook to our truck now as we were out of water” and it took approximately 20-30 minutes to get water supplied to Engine 1, Hand wrote in the report. Hand said in the report that there were problems with Station 51 personnel getting the truck to pump and "delays" were a factor in fire suppression.

Todd said he's upset that he pays fire assessment and when he needed it most, there wasn't enough training and proper equipment to save his home. 'We're paying our hard-earned money to be able to sleep in our beds at night without burning up!" he lamented. Todd said he wants to know why the county hasn't used the increased fire assessment money to make improvements. "What is that tax money going for?" he asked. "I've paid my share and by God, I want to know where it's gone!"

Even though the family is devastated over their loss, Jo Todd said she appreciates so much the kindness of their neighbors who donated money to help them get clothing and personal items the next day, and for the help of the American Red Cross.

A call to Wellborn Fire Chief Tom Maynard Tuesday afternoon was not returned by press time.

County EMS Director Murel McDonald said the delay in getting the water connection between the tanker and Engine 1 came because "the person on the apparatus did not know how to accomplish refill of the county truck so they (the county) ran out."

"Bottom line is, the volunteers refused to get the training they needed and now this family is homeless," said County Fire Coordinator Johnny Howard and McDonald agreed. "We only have four professional fire fighters on duty for each shift - two which are paid out of EMS budget - that's not enough," Howard said. "If the County Commission will give us control of this fire service, we'll resolve the problems - all it takes is a vote."

McDonald and Howard said although the fire assessment was raised from $35 to $50 recently, the increase was eaten away by increased costs in providing the county service. And, during a fire board meeting last week, "Volunteers said they don't want to do 160-hour training," McDonald said. "Some are not physically capable of undergoing the training, and some said they aren't capable. They have decided to only take brush fire training and remain volunteers."

State law requires that any fire fighter who goes into a burning home be fully equipped and fully trained with the 160-hour state training, something the county has stressed for the past two years to county volunteers.

"Three votes is all it takes to stop this," said Howard and McDonald.

"Had the tanker pumped water, the house could have been saved so personal effects could have been saved," Suwannee County Coordinator Johnny Wooley said.

Susan K. Lamb may be reached by calling 1-386-362-1734 ext. 131 or by emailing susan.lamb@gaflnews.com.