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Confusion Hindered Fire Response

By Susan Hill Smith, Island Eye News Staff Writer

Photos by Steve Rosamilia

Restoration efforts to IOP landmark underway.

Restoration efforts to IOP landmark underway.

Restorations of Citadel Beach Club could be finished by fall’s end following the Mother’s Day fire that forced the gutting of the entire building.

Meanwhile, Charleston County’s Consolidated 9-1-1 Center has acknowledged that confusion on its end led to an 8- to 9-minute delay in dispatching Mount Pleasant Fire Department to assist Isle of Palms Fire Department that Sunday morning.

We’re not looking for blame,” said Isle of Palms Fire Chief Ann Graham, who asked the day after the May 8 fire for an explanation of what went wrong and finally got specifics from the 9-1-1 Center the first week in July. “We just don’t want it to happen again.”

As far as the impact of dispatch delays on the fire’s outcome, Graham said, “There is no way to know what the absolute difference would be, but it did cause a delayed response in making an interior attack.”

Originally constructed in the 1950s and rebuilt after Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Citadel Beach Club is an island landmark used by The Citadel’s cadets, staff, faculty, alumni and donors. The state military college also books other events at the venue, which has a busy wedding calendar.

The cause of the fire is still undetermined and likely to stay that way, Graham said. The Citadel said repair costs have not been determined yet either.

Jim Lake, director of the Consolidated 9-1-1 Center, told Island Eye News the confusion with dispatch to the Citadel Beach Club fire involved problems with technology and training at the 9-1-1 Center that were quickly pinpointed and corrected in the aftermath.

Other issues contributing to the delays were specific to the circumstances of the Citadel Beach Club fire. “It was a combination of factors,” he said.

Examining the timeline

Citadel Beach House-1004163

“There is no way to know what the absolute difference would be, but it did cause a delayed response in making an interior attack.” IOP Fire Chief Ann Graham

The 9-1-1 Center’s timeline for the fire starts with a passing motorist who made the initial emergency call at 3:41 a.m., after seeing flames and smoke. The 9-1-1 Center dispatched Isle of Palms Fire at 3:42 a.m., and firefighters arrived at the scene 5 minutes and 31 seconds later, at 3:48 a.m. At the same time, Isle of Palms Fire asked county dispatch for assistance from Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island fire departments.

Citadel Beach Club includes living quarters for the property’s manager and his wife. The couple woke to the sound of glass breaking from the fire’s heat and made their escape without any reported injuries, Graham said.

They were coming down the stairs about the same time we rolled up with the first unit.”

Because of the fire’s size—with flames emerging from the roof and three sides of the building—Isle of Palms firefighters had to wait until backup arrived to go into the building, Graham said. Before they could wage an interior attack, they needed Mount Pleasant Fire Department on the scene to act as the Rapid Intervention Team, ready to launch a rescue mission if needed.

Sullivan’s Island Fire Department, meanwhile, had been dispatched by the 9-1-1 Center at 3:50 a.m. to 40th Avenue on Isle of Palms for a separate cell phone call from someone who smelled smoke and didn’t know the source.

The 9-1-1 Center did not dispatch Mount Pleasant firefighters to Isle of Palms until 3:56 a.m. and initially told them to go to 40th Avenue, correcting the instructions within a minute to the Citadel Beach Club, where they arrived at 4:10 a.m.

Sullivan’s Island firefighters arrived at 4:11 a.m. after determining the smoke smell at the 40th Avenue location was coming from Citadel Beach Club, at 4700 Palm Blvd, seven blocks away.

Considering “automatic aid”Citadel Beach House-1004165

Isle of Palms Fire Department does not currently share “automatic aid” with any other fire departments and must request assistance from other fire departments through the 9-1-1 Center. With an automatic aid agreement— which Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island are working to put in place—dispatch typically tells the department that has jurisdiction and any assisting departments to respond to a reported structure fire simultaneously.

Island Eye News became aware of the Citadel Beach Club fire dispatch delays when Graham brought them up during a June 28 meeting of Isle of Palms City Council, which was considering an automatic fire aid agreement between the Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms. The council voted in favor of the agreement, and Sullivan’s Island Town Council will likely vote on the measure this summer.

Charleston County’s Consolidated 9-1-1 Center dispatches for a dozen fire departments, some of which have automatic aid agreements.

When departments share automatic aid, their resources are programmed to automatically pop up for one another as dispatch options, Lake said. If departments don’t share automatic aid, requests for engines or other resources from an assisting department have to be entered manually.

Dispatchers handling the Citadel Beach Club fire had not been appropriately trained how to do that, Lake said, and the center’s software, which is supposed to offer pop-up windows for help, was not programmed to guide them through that process.

Restoration outlook optimistic

Citadel Beach House-1004176

Firefighters stopped the blaze from spreading to the venue’s banquet area. However, there was significant smoke and water damage so that the entire building had to be gutted down to the studs, according to Emily DeVoe, communications specialist for The Citadel.Alford & Isaac Fire & Water Restoration is currently in charge.

The company’s president is a 1974 Citadel graduate.“The team and the crew that’s been out there has just been very efficient,” said DeVoe. She said they are “optimistic” for Citadel Beach Club “to be up and running by the end of fall of 2016.”

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