- Associated Press - Friday, October 31, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - Communication problems between first responders at a 2013 Houston hotel fire and an incomplete assessment of the structure hampered the response to the blaze that killed four firefighters, a state report released Friday found.

But the 62-page report from the State Fire Marshal’s Office also said the firefighters who were killed and injured didn’t fail “to perform their duties as trained or as expected by their organization.”

The May 31, 2013, fire was the deadliest day in the department’s 119-year history. Killed when the roof at the Southwest Inn collapsed were Capt. Matthew Renaud, 35; engineer operator Robert Bebee, 41; firefighter Robert Garner, 29; and Anne Sullivan, 24, a probationary firefighter. Another 12 firefighters were injured.

Houston Fire Chief Terry Garrison said Friday that he was pleased with the report and that its conclusions were similar to those found in an internal fire department probe. That investigation found that efforts to battle the blaze were hampered by confusion over who was in charge, cluttered radio channels and other disorganization but that those issues did not result in the deaths.

The fire marshal’s office report “didn’t identify that we were wrong in our decision making or our risk management,” Garrison said.

Neither report found the cause of the blaze, which started in a restaurant that was attached to the hotel.

The Friday report listed eight findings, including that radio communications at the scene were “difficult if not impossible.”

The internal fire department report released in September said the radio system at the time of the fire allowed people to inadvertently hit a button and key up a microphone, tying up the communication system and preventing others from speaking. The radio system has been changed to give incident commanders and fire chiefs higher priority over using it.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office also found that the fire department didn’t perform a recommended pre-fire plan, a review of the structure completed during previous calls to it.

The state report also found the department didn’t conduct a 360-degree evaluation of the structure after arriving to battle the blaze. Such an evaluation could have provided information regarding the potential impact of the fire on the building and its roof, according to the report.

Garrison said his department has invested in software that allows firefighters to enter an address and pull up information on a structure that’s been gathered as part of a pre-fire plan. He said the 360-degree evaluation was not done because the structure was too large and other fire-fighting efforts took priority.

“The best way to honor (the firefighters) is that we learn from this incident,” said Alvin White, the interim president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. “Our officers did the right thing that day.”


Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70

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