New evidence in lawsuit filed by family of 4 firefighters who died in Southwest Inn fire

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - New evidence was revealed Thursday in a lawsuit filed against Motorola by the family of four Houston firefighters killed in the Southwest Inn fire in 2013.

The lawsuit on behalf of the families of Robert Bebee, Robert Garner, Matthew Renaud and Anne Sullivan filed suit in 2016, seeking punitive damages. Robert Yarborough, who survived the fire but suffered serious injuries, also joined the suit.

The new evidence released by their attorney Ben Hall comes in the form of a report by famed pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, who bolsters family members' claims that faulty Motorola radios are to blame for the deaths of several Houston firefighters.

Baden's report states the firefighters who died in the fire died from suffocation. His report also claims the firefighters could have been successfully revived seven minutes after they lost breathable air. 

The lawsuit claims the faulty radios caused an 18-minute delay in firefighters reaching their trapped colleagues.

READ DR. BADEN'S REPORT

HFD Captain Bill Dowling was also critically injured during the fire and eventually died as a result of those injuries.

Back in 2016, Motorola responded in a statement that read in part, “We want to reiterate our sympathy toward victims of the May 2013 tragedy and remind that an independent report after the fire listed numerous potential contributing factors. Since the fire, Motorola Solutions has worked closely with the Houston Fire Department to improve training and understanding of operational capabilities, as well as to provide system enhancements.  We stand behind our equipment and support our Houston customer.”

Final Report

A final report, detailing the events that led to the death of the firefighters, was released in 2015 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After a line-of-duty death, NIOSH conducts its own independent investigation to check for contributing factors to the incident and to make recommendations to prevent future deaths.

The 108-page NIOSH report found eight contributing factors to the deaths of firefighters, including:

  • Fire burning unreported for three hours
  • Delayed notification to the fire department
  • Building construction
  • Wind-impacted fire
  • Scene size-up
  • Personnel accountability
  • Fireground communications
  • Lack of fire sprinkler system

Three-hour head start

As Channel 2 Investigates has previously reported, investigators believe the fire actually started around 9:00 a.m. on May 31. Employees say they smelled smoke throughout the morning, but the first call to 911 came after noon, when black smoke started showing through vents and flames first became visible. The NIOSH report found the hours of smoldering allowed the fire to spread to an area above the first floor, unnoticed.

Wind-driven fire

Adding to the danger that morning, strong winds gusting to 20 mph made visibility on the scene difficult and affected firefighting tactics. A high rise building next to the fire scene also created a wind break, sending high winds channeling on both sides of the Southwest Inn. Intense heat and smoke continued to grow as crews arrived and hampered their efforts.

15 minutes, 29 seconds

The NIOSH report found that 15 minutes, 29 seconds elapsed from the time of dispatch to the roof collapse that killed four firefighters. In the 20 minutes following the collapse, command staff and rescue teams sent into the building frantically tried to locate the missing firefighters. The report states: "At this point in the incident, radio communications were severely hampered due to significant radio traffic, which overloaded the radio system." Trouble with radio communication made rescue attempts even more difficult. The report found crews were attempting to account for every firefighter on the scene, but "due to issues with the radio system, it took the accountability officer 44 minutes to complete the PAR (personal accountability report)."

Roof design

The report goes into significant detail about the roof design of the Southwest Inn and how the initial design and subsequent remodeling played a role in the roof's collapse within 16 minutes of the first crews arriving on the scene. The collapse trapped the four firefighters under layers of roof debris, making it difficult for rescue teams to find them inside the building. A secondary wall collapse trapped another team of firefighters, who were later rescued.

The investigation revealed that the roof of the Southwest Inn had three layers of roofing material, with layers having been added during remodeling projects. The report states:
"When re-roofing occurred, instead of removing the existing roof materials, the new roof was placed on top of the existing roof materials. The roofing material consisted of asphalt shingles installed on ½-inch thick plywood roof decking, which was nailed to the top chords of the trusses. Clay (cement) tiles were added to the roof on Side Alpha for decorative purposes."

When rescue teams rushed in following the collapse, they had to cut through the roofing material with chain saws and crawl through windows to reach trapped firefighters.

Actions taken by HFD since May 2013

Immediately after the Southwest Inn fire, then-Chief Terry Garrison initiated a recovery committee from all ranks within the department to review the incident and make recommendations to prevent another loss of life.Garrison reported a summary of changes within the department to NIOSH.

A communications and technology work group met with Motorola to review radio problems discovered during the fire. Changes were made in the radio system, and radio procedures were updated to improve emergency communications during major incidents. The department worked to update overall performance of the new digital radio system across the city. Equipment was added to improve communication within buildings. The city hired more people in the Office of Emergency Communication to improve incident communications.

A new city ordinance was drafted to address buildings with poor communication. It outlines new requirements that property owners and management companies will need to address to meet the standards set for firefighter safety.
New technology was added to help the incident commander track assignments at a fire scene.

HFD redesigned and updated equipment used by rescue teams sent in to save trapped firefighters. Standard operating guidelines for these teams were updated.

HFD is considering the use of helmet cams to perform on-scene video recording, and the department has secured grant funding to upgrade mobile data terminals (MDT's) in each emergency response vehicle. HFD also introduced a program that gives chiefs in the field electronic building assessments and real-time information on structures as they respond.

The department also began new training in February 2015, which includes a compilation of fire behavior research conducted by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), Fire Safety Research Institute (FSRI), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Recommendations from NIOSH report

Many of the actions taken by HFD address the 15 recommendations for fire departments nationwide made by the NIOSH report. The recommendations are detailed in the full report, which you can read here.

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