Lack of building data hinders Fla. firefighters

By Anne Lindberg
The St. Petersburg Times

LEALMAN, Fla. — Firefighters from St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park who searched a county computer system for information to help them fight a blazing Lealman condominium last month were out of luck.

The lack of such information, including the location of gas cutoffs, doorways and stairs, was par for the course in Lealman, a St. Petersburg Times investigation has discovered. A Times examination of county records has shown that:

  • Lealman has filed few detailed plans of high-risk buildings in its coverage areas. Most of the filings show only the overall footprints of condominiums, other complexes and mobile home parks. Some merely show a generalized map of the area where the address is located.
  • In some cases, Lealman has failed to submit even that sketchy information. Ask Pinellas County officials to pull up the plans for Northside Hospital, Dixie Hollins High and Blanton Elementary schools, for example, and the screen is blank because nothing has been filed.

Lealman fire officials are now scrambling to fix the situation. The Times ran an Oct. 27 story on its Web site,, about the lack of a computerized preplan during a fire at Town Apartments North. The next day, Lealman fire officials e-mailed 64 preplans to the county to be entered into the system. All 64 were of Town Apartments North.

Since then, said Jackie Weinreich, the county's 911 computer systems manager who oversees posting of the preplans, Lealman has "been sending them almost daily. ... They're focusing on the Five Towns area right now."

Five Towns is another condominium complex for seniors, at the western edge of the Lealman fire district at Park Street and 54th Avenue N.

Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham was out of town Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. But in recent interviews, Graham has talked about the expense and time it takes to create preplans.

Lealman fire Capt. Jim Millican agreed Tuesday that having a small department with only two stations makes it hard to assign staff members to prepare preplans. Additionally, he said, Lealman has had computers in its trucks only for about two years. Even now, not all Lealman staff and backup vehicles have the $5,000 computers in them, he said. And, he said, Lealman is not the only department missing preplans on the county site.

Despite the hardships, Millican said, Lealman has not neglected its preplanning duties. Preplans are available for every critical building in Lealman and are updated once a year, he said. Those preplans are loaded into the hard drives of the computers in each Lealman truck, he said. They just have not been sent to the county.

Instead, Lealman has sent copies of maps to the county so they could be available to firefighters coming in from other areas, he said. Lealman felt the preplans could come later.

"It's important to have the maps in there, too, because people coming into the area don't know where the buildings are located," Millican said.

Millican said the preplans could not be sent to the county with the maps because they were different programs and the preplans had to be converted. But it's unclear why it took so long to begin converting them. Once converted, it would not likely take long to load them. Weinreich said fire districts could bring flash drives or send e-mails with the information. The system, she said, holds preplans with up to 99 attachments each. It only takes about five minutes to download one preplan with 99 attachments.

Fire safety experts from across the country consider preplans one of the most important pieces of information for successfully and safely fighting fires.

"It's just good common practice," said Gerard Hoetmer, executive director of the Public Entity Risk Institute, which provides risk management information to public entities, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. "A company should never be in the firehouse waiting for the fire."

Instead, Hoetmer said, the team should be out studying buildings, such as hospitals, schools, apartment or condominium complexes, and manufacturers to familiarize themselves with the premises and possible risks. That information can save not only the lives of people caught in emergencies, it can also save firefighters' lives because they know possible dangers in advance.

Making that knowledge easily available to everyone is even more critical in an automatic aid system like Pinellas', where departments routinely go into other districts to help battle blazes. In Lealman alone, there were 142 structure fires in 2008.

Lealman was the lead department at 96 percent of those fires, but it had help from Pinellas Park at 89 percent of them; from St. Petersburg at 80 percent of them; and from Seminole at 27 percent of them. At times, all three departments came to help Lealman.

And, at 4 percent of the fires - six - Lealman was busy elsewhere, and one of the other agencies had to come in and take command of the situation.

Whether coming in as backup or as the company that will take command, having as much up-to-date information as soon as possible is extremely important, Largo fire Chief Mike Wallace said.

"I want my guys to have that information before they get there ... so they can make informed decisions and take risks that are risks tempered by information," Wallace said.

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