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Investigators of 2011 incident give recommendations

By MEGHAN RUSSELLStaff writer

Their report complete, investigators of a March 2011 Huntingtown house fire that injured 10 local volunteer firefighters brought before the Calvert County Board of County Commissioners this week their analysis of exactly what went wrong, and more than four dozen recommendations for improved safety across all county fire departments.

On March 19, 2011, units arrived at 3380 Soper Road to find a chimney fire quickly spreading in the attic and walls of a nearly $2 million, nine-bedroom mansion along the Patuxent River. Access to the river was poor and the rural location of the house made it hard to haul in the required amount of water needed to fight the flames, and the type of construction used to build the house didn’t hold up well against the fire. After conditions quickly deteriorated, firefighters trapped on the second floor were forced to run through sheet rock walls or jump out of windows to escape, said fire service experts Chief Billy Goldfeder of Ohio and Capt. Justin Green of Loudoun County.

“We performed an autopsy on this,” Goldfeder said.

He and Green led the Calvert County Accident Safety Review Committee that studied the fire and created the report with recommendations for change, after Huntingtown Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jonathan Riffe contacted them seeking a third-party review.

Goldfeder, who said the review team performed the analysis at no cost, said he was happy to help Riffe when he learned of the incident.

“He could have lost some firefighters that day, there’s no question about it,” he said. Although no lives were lost during the fire, some firefighters suffered serious burns and one has yet to return to active duty but is expected to do so in one to two months.

“This willingness to open their operations to outside review is rare in the firefighting field and is to be commended,” Green said.

On Tuesday, Goldfeder and Green summed up a list of what went wrong during the fire: The house was not properly sized up when units first arrived on the scene to determine how many resources were needed; volunteers using a thermal imaging camera to gauge the amount of heat coming from the attic mistakenly thought the machine had malfunctioned; not every firefighter had a portable radio to call for help; and there was not enough available water and no sprinkler system.

“It really is a perfect storm scenario,” Goldfeder said.

With those factors in mind, he and Green made numerous recommendations to the commissioners, adding that they understand there will be costs involved.

“So we’re gonna give you a lot of ammunition to think about,” he said.

Just some of the recommendations included implementing a countywide training program so all departments follow the same procedures; purchasing radios with an “emergency identifier button” for all responders; improving thermal imaging camera training; coordinating with county Geographic Information System developers to have street maps with driveway lengths recorded for large structures prior to an event; designating a water supply officer to coordinate where water is coming from and how much is needed; and making it mandatory for responders to do an initial 360-degree lap around every house on a call.

Goldfeder added he was happy to learn the county recently passed an ordinance making it mandatory for all new construction to have a sprinkler system beginning July 1, 2013.

He also said he could work with county staff to apply dollar figures to the review team’s recommendations.

Commissioners’ President Gerald W. “Jerry” Clark (R) stressed his support for the recommendations and the board gave consensus for staff to move forward with implementation plans.

“I think we all understand and realize the volunteer [fire department] system in Calvert County is a real jewel,” Clark said. “But when the bell rings, they all need to be on the same mindset.”

Commissioner Evan Slaughenhoupt (R) encouraged public safety staff to look at implementing the recommendations “as soon as possible” while the board is on the verge of approving its fiscal 2013 budget.

“There are perhaps some things in that budget that are a substantial expense that on the surface are a lesser priority than some of the things we’ve heard today,” he said.

“It’s terrific we have these recommendations and we can start breaking them down,” Commissioner Susan Shaw (R) said. “A lot of things were done right, this was a very difficult fire. ... On the other hand, we absolutely have to do what we can do to keep our firefighters safe.”

mrussell@somdnews.com