Fatal fire proves need for more firefighters - WALB.com, South Georgia News, Weather, Sports

Fatal fire proves need for more firefighters

September 26, 2007

Lee County-  The Lee County Fire Chief say his department is short-staffed.

A day after a deadly house fire, Chief James Howell says, his fire trucks run with only half the recommended number of firefighters because the county won't pay to hire more.  The county only staffs two firefighters per truck. The National Fire Protection Association recommends four.

First, more information on what happened at the Double North house where 12-year-old Tony Long died.

Tuesday afternoon his sister, 21-year-old Jessica Long apparently took a candle inside a closet where their dog was having puppies. Clothes in the closet caught fire, she ran to get a fire extinguisher, but when she returned the flames were out of control.

We're told she didn't know her 12-year-old brother was upstairs asleep and when she called 911 she told them no one was in the house. But a second call to 911, from someone else, revealed that the Lee County sixth grader was in the house.

Tony Long died of smoke inhalation in his upstairs bedroom.

Dispatcher: "Lee County 911."

"Yes, My house is on fire," said Jessica Long.

Dispatcher: What's your address?

Long: "111 Somerset."

Dispatcher: "111Somerset?"

Long: "Yes Ma'am."

Dispatcher: "Is everyone out of the house?"

Long: "Yes, I believe so."

Dispatcher: "What's your name?"

Long: "Jessica Long."

Dispatcher: "Okay, Jessica everyone's out of the house, we'll send the fire department over okay."

Long:"Okay Thank you."


Dispatcher: "Lee County 911."

"Yes there's a fire at 111 Somerset Drive," said a neighbor.

Dispatcher: "We've got them en route, is everybody out of the house?"

Neighbor: "No ma'am there's a little boy upstairs."

Dispatcher: "There's a little boy upstairs, okay I'll let them know."

The first truck arrived seven minutes after the call, but heavy smoke and flames had already filled the home. Both firefighters rushed to get inside, leaving the truck unmanned. The second truck arrived four minutes later with additional help. Tony Long died of injuries at the hospital. The family dog and the puppies also died.

Did Lee County have enough firefighters to handle the raging fire on Somerset? Lee County's fire Chief says no and Wednesday he asked commissioners for more money to add at least two firefighters per truck. Chief James Powell says it's a matter of safety for firefighters and the people they protect.

When the fire engine arrived at 111 Somerset with just two fire fighters on board, the fire was already intense.

"The fire was so intense that it was actually encroaching the stairwell to the second floor so one fireman had to literally hold the fire off to allow the other firefighter to make their attempt to locate the victim upstairs," said Chief James Howell.

That left their truck in a dangerous situation, with both the truck operator and firefighter inside nearly four minutes until backup arrived.

"For safety sake he needs to stay with the engine and maintain and be sure that that pump is operating correctly. That attack line is that fireman's lifeline, but if we've got two men on the truck that only leaves, one man available to take the nozzle and go in," said Howell.

That's why Chief Howell met with two commission members today, urging them for more money to put four men on each truck, but when we confronted commissioners after that meeting they say, that could take time.

"We're going to let the chief put things on paper and present it to the board and go from there, right now we're just not privy to all this information," said Commissioner Ed Duffy.

When we questioned them why the commission only funds two firefighters per truck and about recent budget cuts to the department, they said....

"I can't answer that question, I don't know, that's the reason the chairman and myself came here this morning to get some information so that we can be privy to more information as the chief presents it to us," said Duffy.

In the most recent budget, three part time fire fighter positions were cut to hold to the $1,516,000 fire budget. It's something the Chief says commissioners need to reconsider.

"Whatever it takes I think we owe it to the people of Lee County, the citizens of Lee County I think we have an obligation to provide this fire protection serve to them and I'm hoping we can find some means and achieve that goal," said Howell.

Lee County has four fire stations. Each station is staffed with only two people at a time. That means only eight firefighters are on duty every day to protect the entire county.

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