HFD chief: Gravity was main factor in deadly Southwest Inn fire

By Ryan Korsgard - Reporter
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HOUSTON - Houston Fire Chief Terry Garrison addressed a report released Monday detailing specific recommendations on the fire at the Southwest Inn on the Southwest Freeway in May of 2013.

After more than year, the report was released about the massive Southwest Inn fire that took the lives of four Houston firefighters and how the department is hoping to prevent another tragedy.

"I think unfortunately on this incident when that ceiling dropped on our four members, I don't think radio communications had anything to do with that," said Garrison.

On May 31, 2013, four HFD firefighters -- Matthew Renaud, Robert Bebee, Robert Garner and Anne Sullivan -- were killed in a massive blaze at the Southwest Inn off Highway 59. Thirteen other firefighters were injured in the fire.

"I'm thinking that they made really good, sound critical management decisions based on what they thought they could risk to save lives. And unfortunately there were some things taking place above them as far as the way that fire was impacting that structure that just caused that catastrophic event," said Garrison.

The report showed there were more than 750 cases of firefighters not being able to communicate during this fire. It's one of 200 points included in the report. Fire department managers say they have already made changes to the way firefighters use radios and how the radios operate.

"When you have four maydays, everyone has something critical to say and whoever tied up that talk channel kept the incident commander from directing the overall scene. With the new prioritization of the radios, that has allowed our incident commanders to basically direct the overall operation," said Deputy Executive Chief Richard Mann.

Garrison said a fast-moving overhead fire weakened the structure and it collapsed, killing four firefighters inside.

"What I think contributed to it honestly, was gravity. It's just a matter of fires burning so much faster today," said Garrison.

All four deceased firefighters were located in the front of the building close to the entry door, according to the report.

He said the committee's report addressed fire ground operations, rescue and safety, communications and technology and timeline, process and procedures.

Recommendations include more training on how to fight fires involving plastic materials, less on wood and cotton (modern materials are more plastic-based), and equipping more apparatus with foam because of more plastic.

Another recommendation is for HFD do a better job of forecasting what equipment will be needed on potential lengthy and complex fires, as well as better organization of incident command and to keep a "clear access lane" for specialized firefighting equipment.

Garrison said training will start this Sunday based on what has been learned from the Southwest Inn Fire, as well as other fatal fires.

He said the cause of the fire is under investigation by the state fire marshal. That report has not been released.

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association interim president Alvin White released a statement Tuesday which read:

"The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association (HPFFA) has reviewed the 193-page report and is assisting the department in implementing some of the suggested changes to the way Houston Fire Fighters deliver services to our citizens.  We emphasize that this internal report should be taken in totality with those yet-to-be-released from the State Fire Marshal's Office, along with that of The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), in order to gain a clearer view of what happened on that horrific day.  Local 341, in conjunction with the IAFF, continually advocate for the safety and health of the 3,800 men and women who serve with the Houston Fire Department.  In fact, we addressed our concerns over the proposed radio upgrade in a formal letter to Fire Chief Garrison less than one month before that fatal fire.  It is obvious from the conclusions contained within this report there are still areas that need further scrutiny. While firefighting is an inherently dangerous and deadly activity, the HPFFA is cautiously optimistic that these changes can be enacted for the purpose of protecting our citizens while hopefully avoiding another tragedy such as the one that occurred on May 31, 2013."

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