- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

Dispatchers who alert D.C. emergency crews through their radios about imminent danger failed to send the correct signal Monday during an early morning fire that injured three firefighters who were not aware they should have evacuated the building.

Firefighters who responded to the fire at an auto-body shop in the 1300 block of Kenilworth Avenue Northeast at about 3:37 a.m. told The Washington Times that the on-scene commander ordered those inside the building to evacuate because of a propane tank.

D.C. Fire Department records show the commander radioed the order to dispatchers at 3:49 a.m.

However, firefighters who were monitoring the radio said the dispatchers sent the signal over a channel used for dispatching emergency calls.

As a result, firefighters in stations across the city heard the urgent call to evacuate, but firefighters at the scene did not.

Alan Etter, a fire department spokesman, said department officials are “looking into” the incident and that several of those involved are submitting accounts.

“Clearly, that’s a situation that we don’t want to put our firefighters in,” he said. “We depend on the communications division to provide a critical function. Firefighters depend on them.”

The propane tank inside the body shop exploded, sending a fireball into the air while the firefighters were inside the building. Two of the three injured were treated on the scene. The third received second-degree burns on his face and was treated at an area hospital and released. It is not clear exactly when the tank exploded.

Those working that night said the dispatchers also sent the wrong signal tone over the radios, which firefighters wear on the shoulders, over their protective gear.

Even if the message had been received inside the auto shop, they said, it would have been meaningless. The firefighters also said they heard the correct tone on the proper radio channel about 10 minutes later.

Fire department records corroborate the firefighters’ account that there was a 10-minute delay between the time the incident commander issued the evacuation order and the time the dispatcher sounded the correct tone over the correct channel.

E. Michael Latessa, the head of the Office of Unified Communications, which dispatches emergency calls, said yesterday that he was familiar with the incident but not aware of communications problems during the incident.

“This is the first I’ve heard of any issues,” he said.

This is not the first time the office has come under fire for making mistakes.

The Times also reported on numerous incidents in which dispatchers have directed fire and rescue crews to the wrong addresses.

In addition, a firefighter responding to a Jan. 11 apartment-building fire in the 2300 block of Good Hope Road Southeast broke his back after falling 30 feet down an elevator shaft. Dispatchers had failed to tell fire crews that there had been an explosion from a buildup of natural gas. A 2-year-old girl died in the fire, and her 30-year-old mother was critically injured.

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