Where There's Smoke, There's, um, Maybe a Fireman

Seldom does the clock seem so unmerciful as when a child is trapped in a burning bedroom and the fire engine has yet to arrive.

"Every minute -- every second -- seems like it takes at least an hour," says Lt. Don Petito of the EMS division of the Coral Springs Fire Department.

Petito's not imagining. He knows. On October 28 he was commander on the scene of an apartment fire in Coral Springs where, for five of those hour-long minutes, he could do nothing but wait for the nearest engine to arrive and douse the flames. Four-year-old Onix Rondon was trapped in the bedroom, and the heat was too intense for a rescue team to reach him.

But the engine he was waiting for -- Engine 43 -- never arrived. In fact, according to Coral Springs Fire Chief Bill Fyfe, it never left the station. While Onix Rondon died on the floor, just beyond reach of his would-be rescuers, Engine 43 stayed parked exactly a mile and a half from the scene of his death and a mere ten yards from a firehouse sign reading "Remember: Time is of the Essence."

It could have reached the burning apartment on Riverside Drive in less than three minutes without breaking the speed limit -- if it had ever made it on the road.

But it didn't, so dispatchers sent another, more distant engine. This engine -- Engine 64 -- had to come from the city garage across town on Coral Ridge Road, almost five miles from Riverside Drive. This truck didn't arrive on the scene until nearly nine minutes after the call came in, according to a review of departmental radio traffic. Once the engine arrived, its 750-gallon supply of water made quick work of the blaze. Within two minutes the fire was out and Petito's search team was able to enter the smoldering bedroom. There they found the boy's lifeless body lying by the door.

Could Onix Rondon have been saved with a quicker response by a fire engine? In all likelihood, probably not. Petito was first to arrive on the scene, and by then he says the heat in Onix's bedroom was already unsurvivable.

Still, no one can really know this for certain, according to Fred Deal, director of the fire science program at Broward Community College and the man responsible for training and certifying most firefighters in Broward County. "Nobody in this field would be so foolish as to assert that having an engine there within three to four minutes could not have made a difference," he says.

The problem with Engine 43 wasn't mechanical. It wasn't a broken axle or a bad clutch that kept the truck off the road. The problem with Engine 43 was that no one showed up to drive it. Coral Springs is one of a handful of Broward County municipalities that still rely on volunteers to fight their fires. And while there are certain advantages to having a volunteer department, there are also disadvantages.

"Sometimes they show up, and sometimes they don't," says a source in the Coral Springs department who did not want to be named in this article for fear of reprisal by Fyfe.

Indeed the chief is acutely concerned about the unauthorized disclosure of data. "What I want to know is, who gave you your information," he questions. He is not, however, concerned about the performance of his department during the fire that killed Onix Rondon. "Obviously that's somebody else's concern," he says, referring to supposed leakers on his payroll.

Chief Fyfe maintains that he is entirely satisfied with how his department handled the fire on Riverside Drive. "Absolutely. We had an engine on the scene within six minutes of that call."

Fyfe's defense of his department is long on passion but apparently short on fact. A few minutes after having asserted that Engine 64 arrived on the scene within six minutes, he changes that to "six and a half minutes or so."

In fact the official transcript of departmental radio traffic during the incident lists Engine 64's response time as 7 minutes and 48 seconds. But a taped recording of that same radio traffic indicates that Engine 64 may have actually been on the road closer to nine minutes. Whenever a unit arrives on the scene, the driver is supposed to report by radio using the code 10-97. The point on the tape where a listener hears the words "64's 97" (followed a few seconds later by a confirmation from Petito) is exactly 1 minute and 15 seconds before the dispatcher announces the ten-minute mark.

Would a nine-minute response time in this incident concern the chief? "Yes, nine minutes would be borderline." But it was only six, he says.

It's conceivable that the discrepancy over Engine 64's actual response time is the result of differing notions of when the clock should start. Some fire officials measure response time from the moment a 911 call comes in, according to Andrea A. Walter, manager of the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI). Other departments wait until the dispatch is sent out to units in the field. Still others measure only travel time; they don't start the clock until the trucks leave the station. "It makes it hard to compare response times from one department to another," Walter says. In Coral Springs the clock is supposed to start when the dispatch goes out.

But the time that really matters is the time that a building is burning. "The goal is to get firefighting equipment on a scene quickly enough to intervene before flashover occurs, which means, typically, three to four minutes," Deal says. Flashover is the point when the temperature in a room reaches the degree at which everything combustible spontaneously ignites. At that point the fire is said to be, in firefighter lingo, "fully involved."

According to CFAI, a typical house-fire will reach flashover if it burns unattended for eight minutes. Therefore the organization sets a "tactical goal" of having a unit set up and operating on a fire scene within that time.

That's not always possible even in cities that budget for fully staffed professional departments, Deal says, and especially not in cities that, like Coral Springs, rely exclusively on volunteers. "Basically it's an economic decision. If a community wants to rely on volunteers, it must accept that sometimes responses will take longer, and sometimes nobody will come."

Chief Fyfe maintains that a volunteer department has its own advantages. "I can put 50 men on a fire," he says. And he can. If they come.

Fyfe's volunteers are ordinary citizens who have been trained in firefighting and who wear pagers when on call. Because not everyone with a pager can always respond when it goes off, a smaller pool of volunteers is normally held on "standby" status to ensure there will be adequate manpower to handle important calls, Fyfe says. Volunteers on standby usually hang out in one of the fire stations or work on one of the trucks. On the afternoon of October 28, they had taken Engine 64 to the city garage.

This isn't the first time that volunteer firefighters have ignited local controversy. After the Plantation Towne Mall burned in September 1996, some questioned the wisdom of pitting volunteers against a blaze that raged out of control for hours and caused $25 million in property damage.

One furious resident wrote in a letter to the Sun-Sentinel: "As citizens of Plantation watched the fire gut one store after another, we were asking each other, 'Where is our Fire Department? Why don't they get some water on it?' We could only assume most of the volunteers were at work and were not available to man the trucks."

Plantation and Coral Springs share a history of residential development that began in the Seventies when western Broward County still consisted largely of broad swaths of marsh and sawgrass. Now that Coral Springs has grown into the third-most populous municipality in Broward County, with a population just under 110,000, some are questioning whether the city may be outgrowing its volunteer system of fire protection. Chief Fyfe, for one, thinks the current approach is viable. "This system has been working in this city for 28 years," he says. "If I didn't think it was safe, I wouldn't live here."

Regarding the fire on Riverside Drive, Lt. Petito is adamant in praising the performance of every firefighter and paramedic who fought the blaze. But he can't hide his feelings regarding those five crucial minutes when the heat was driving back his rescue team, and he had no water and no hose. "It's not something I particularly enjoyed, no," he says.

Although the apartment where Onix Rondon once lived with his mother and two siblings now stands empty, it still bears signs of the lives it once sheltered. The living room floor is strewn with toys. Two stuffed animals lay face down on the carpet. Dishes still sit on the kitchen countertop.

One wall has been transformed into a memorial of sorts. Someone has written on it the following words, which take up nearly the entire wall:

7-7-93 to 10/28/97

It's possible Onix's death will leave a legacy greater than a smattering of sad words scrawled onto smoke-blackened sheetrock.

"I think what you're going to see in Coral Springs is a transition into at least a system of paid drivers. I think that is inevitable," Deal says. "When it will happen, I don't know. But the handwriting's on the wall.

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