Jan. 21--Legal protocol dictates that firefighters responding to a call remain at the scene until police have secured it -- even as a fire roars a short drive away, fire officials said Monday.
Such a scenario unfolded early Saturday, when an East Rivanna volunteer fire crew responded to a call for an assault-related injury. As those firefighters awaited police, officials said, flames shot from a Keswick farmhouse less than two miles away. A fire department seven miles from the home responded first.
The fire killed a woman and her two children, ages 2 to 8. Her husband discovered the fire when he came home from work. Authorities have not identified the victims. Friends have said the husband was hospitalized at the University of Virginia Medical Center.
Authorities still are investigating the cause of the fire.
Located seven miles from the Carriage Hill Farms home, the Monticello Fire Department responded in 12 minutes to the house at Carriage Hill Farms, authorities said. The East Rivanna crew, whose station is set a mile from the Keswick home off U.S. 250, arrived a minute later.
"They were in a different [vehicle] to respond to the EMS call, responded back to the station to get the engine, then responded to the fire," John Oprandy, deputy chief of Albemarle County Fire and Rescue, said Saturday.
Having responded to the earlier call, the East Rivanna crew "was staging, waiting nearby for the arrival of the police officer, standard practice for a reported assault," Oprandy said.
East Rivanna's crew had no choice but to remain where they were after the fire call came, said Albemarle County Assistant Fire Marshall Robbie Gilmer.
"If firefighters are dealing with a call that they're on and they leave, they've abandoned the patients they're treating," he said.
Safety guidelines, state laws and county protocols dictate when responders can leave a scene, Gilmer said.
If a crew left an unsecured scene with someone untreated, "there are legal proceedings that that patient could pursue against us," he added.
Dispatching fire crews to medical calls is standard procedure, according to the Albemarle County website. Two of the five East Rivanna volunteer firefighters on call Saturday morning were certified paramedics, according to the company's website.
"All of our fire stations respond to EMS calls in varying capacities and with varied capability," Oprandy said.
According to online call logs, an ambulance arrived to the assault-related injury call at about 2 a.m., remained on the scene for about seven minutes and headed to a hospital. A request for details on this incident was not answered by press time.
Two families lived in the 87-year-old farmhouse. Homeowners Dan and Kristi O'Donnell lived downstairs with their son. The unidentified couple lived upstairs with their children.
The O'Donnells said they were awakened by their dog at about the same time the man who lived upstairs arrived home from work to discover the fire, at about 1:30 a.m. The O'Donnells said they helped him as he tried to save his family.
"When we got out, it was just one little area that was burning," Kristi O'Donnell said.
The size and extent of a fire is difficult to identify from the outside, Gilmer said.
"A lot of factors come into play," Gilmer said. "It could be sealed so tightly the fire could be a slow smoldering fire inside."
A lightweight, clapboard exterior like the one at the farmhouse certainly wouldn't have slowed the fire's pace, Gilmer said.
The intense heat and smoke made it impossible to enter the building, Dan O'Donnell said.
Firefighters retrieved the body of the tenant's son before the second floor collapsed, authorities said. Crews were unable to enter the building for a few hours after that, Oprandy said Saturday. It took 12 hours to douse flames, authorities said.
Determining the cause could take time, especially with a winter storm rolling in, Gilmer said.