75 animals killed in NY barn fire after FFs sent to wrong address

The St. Lawrence County Office of Emergency Services said their dispatch system directed them to a residence with the same street address in a different town


Ben Muir
Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.

ROSSIE, N.Y. — A family is reeling after their barn caught fire Thursday afternoon, killing roughly 75 of their animals.

The incident intensified their anger as it took about 45 minutes for fire departments to arrive at the scene. If there is any blame, however, it's not on the fire departments as the family first thought.

It was a few hours after their barn full of quail, peacocks, rabbits, chickens and a pig named Charlotte burned to the ground. According to St. Lawrence County dispatch logs, it took about 45 minutes for the Oxbow and Gouverneur fire departments to arrive, coming after dispatchers sent first responders to the wrong house about 30 miles away.

By the time firefighters got to the correct address, the barn was too far gone. Some chickens had escaped, as well as some guinea hens, but the center of the family's hobby farm was destroyed. Their tools, chainsaws and wood stove were also gone. Charlotte is still missing after she escaped with burn marks.

The incident was fresh, and Rebecca Cole, who owns the barn, was upset, so she decided to post on Facebook. She wrote that there's a turf war between departments and essentially placed responsibility on Gouverneur fire for the lapsed response. She would go on to retract this and apologize after the department responded. It didn't stop what she called hate mail from coming in.

"It's just the stress of your animals burning up," she said, "and first responders can't get to you because everybody can't get on the same page with communication."

In the small town of Rossie, which has a welcome sign about three miles from the St. Lawrence County and Jefferson County line, Mrs. Cole and her family live deep in the woods. Roughly 15 miles from Gouverneur, she lives alongside her parents with her husband, Donald. They live at the end of Cole Road, which twists and turns for roughly a mile into the woods. At the end of the road are the Cole residences, made up of a few houses, a few trailers and their barn.

On Thursday, Mrs. Cole was at an appointment in DeKalb Junction. Mr. Cole was inside their trailer when he saw flames coming from the barn just feet away. A friend who was there with them called 911 while Mr. Cole sprayed a hose and started breaking the walls to help some of his animals escape.

According to the St. Lawrence County Office of Emergency Services, a house number and street name was obtained during the first call to 911. But 232 Cole St., where the family lives, also exists in the town of Edwards.

Dispatch was using the Enhanced 911 system to automatically provide the caller's location to dispatchers. Using that, as well as what the 911 caller said, the address was "validated to the town of Edwards," according to a report.

Dispatch received another call, this time from Mrs. Cole as she raced home. She says she remembers telling them the correct address, saying it was Rossie and not Edwards. It's unclear what was said in the 911 calls as emergency services said they would not comment on the situation since their director, Matthew Denner, is out of the office until next week.

Regardless, the Edwards Fire Department, County Car 5 and the Gouverneur Fire Department were dispatched to the Cole Road location in Edwards. They were dispatched to Maggie Munger's house where she too has a barn full of goats, chickens and rabbits. Mrs. Munger is a teacher and was at work at the time, but a friend who listens to the police scanner told her there was a barn with animals in it on fire and on Cole Road.

She called her mother-in-law, who was at her house watching Mrs. Munger's kids, at about 11:15 a.m. Everything seemed OK, but five minutes later a fire truck from Edwards and a state trooper drove by. They later came back and checked everything out.

"But hey, they did respond to our house quickly," Mrs. Munger said. "Which is good to know in case we ever have an emergency."

According to the Gouverneur Fire Department, their truck made it about halfway to Edwards before they were redirected to the actual fire in Rossie. Dispatch had gotten another call from Mrs. Cole, who said she was pleading with dispatchers to send the Oxbow department. That department was just minutes away from her house, but why would dispatch send the Oxbow department to a fire they believed to be in Edwards?

After the confusion ended, Oxbow and Gouverneur fire departments were dispatched to the Cole family's road once dispatchers realized the correct address. The first fire units were on scene at about 11:44 a.m., according to dispatch logs.

The Gouverneur department would later issue its own Facebook post responding to Mrs. Cole. They wrote that they were upset, but that the Cole family was in their thoughts. They said they were sorry for the family's loss.

"There was no turf war of districts as Gouverneur Fire and Oxbow both respond to structure fires in the Town of Rossie together and are normally paged out together," a portion of the post reads. "We were never aware of the fire being in Rossie until dispatch paged out Oxbow Fire Department while we were (en) route to Edwards."

Mrs. Cole and her family say it appears there was a massive miscommunication breach by dispatchers. They felt dismissed as they say they gave the right address and township and pleaded with dispatch to send closer departments.

But Mrs. Cole said she's a forgiving person. She felt attacked by people who didn't agree with her now-edited post on Facebook, but above all, it was a quick reaction to a tragic incident that began with miscommunication.

"I'm mad about it, but I'm not going to hold a grudge or anything," she said, "It's just, I try to help people all the time. I donate my time and help organizations, and then something like this happens and all of a sudden I'm being attacked."

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(c)2021 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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