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Report on Suffolk wildfire response details missteps

A firefighter battles a blaze in Manorville off

A firefighter battles a blaze in Manorville off Wading River Road as a large brush fire spread across eastern Long Island. (April 9, 2012) Credit: Chris Ware

Fire department units responding to the Ridge-Manorville wildfire in April ignored command procedures, stymied access to hot spots for other crews, and were slowed by incompatible radio frequencies, according to officials who have read an unreleased county report.

In addition, the more than 30-page report prepared by Suffolk County Fire Rescue and Emergency Services pointed out that commanders were unaware that a Manorville Fire Department crew had been injured and transported for treatment, or that their brush truck was even responding to the fire, the officials said.

"People were injured, could have been killed and equipment was lost," said one official who read the report.

Suffolk County's director of communications, Vanessa Baird-Streeter, said the report was an evaluation of firefighters' response to the April 9-10 fire and not necessarily intended to become public.

"The firefighters who fought the Ridge and Manorville brush fires did an outstanding job with approximately 1,000 acres affected," Baird-Streeter said. "There were no lives lost and very minimal loss of property."

The fire burned 1,123 acres in the pine barrens region, destroyed three homes and several structures, injured three firefighters, led to thousands of evacuations and required the help of nearly 100 fire departments.

The blaze was the biggest on Long Island since the 1995 Sunrise fire, which burned more than 5,000 acres in the pine barrens and jumped Sunrise Highway.

The April fire began as two separate blazes in Manorville and Ridge that later connected when high winds and drought-like conditions fueled the flames.

The report on the blaze includes examples of problems that the firefighters faced, along with recommendations and an improvement plan, the officials said.

One section, titled "Freelancing," details that many department units bypassed the command center where they would get instructions and instead followed roads to where smoke was visible, they said.

These actions "hindered ability to direct departments to where they were most needed and hindered ability to know what was out there," the officials said, quoting the report.

Assignments not followed

One official said that the report reads that in some instances "fire departments were 'chasing fire' not assignments."

When a Ridge chief called for mutual aid, according to officials who read the report, some responding units went instead to Manorville because the fire there was bigger.

Parking was also an issue in the report, the officials said. A minority of crews went to a dedicated refresh and rehydrate staging area, stopping instead on area roadways that at times hindered access for on-duty units to get to fire spots, the officials said.

"Too many chiefs' and support vehicles were parked randomly on the roadways and parking areas," the report reads according to officials.

The report also focuses on communication, the officials said, such as incident commanders stationed at two separate locations who could not communicate because there was so much chatter on the line and some departments using incompatible frequencies.

The injured Manorville firefighters had to use cellphones, rather than radios, to report their situation. The three men lost communication and walked for more than two hours after a sudden wind engulfed them, forcing them to abandon their brush truck and flee, the officials said. All were taken to the hospital, where one was treated for first- and second-degree burns.

The report has been given to commanders, fire marshals, fire coordinators, the Brookhaven National Laboratory, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the towns of Brookhaven and Riverhead, Baird-Streeter said.

The county said releasing the report would jeopardize public safety.

"It is confidential communication between public officers and public officials providing opinions to assist in a deliberative process," Baird-Streeter said.

"It is unfortunate that an internal process has been compromised," she said. "We are hopeful that this does not hinder the process of future after-action reviews, which are done to assess lessons learned and highlight what worked well and what could be improved upon for the benefit of Suffolk County and its residents."

Calls to make report public

A conservation advocate and some elected officials have been pressing the county to make the report public.

"The failure to release it will jeopardize public safety because there are things people can do to protect themselves," said Richard Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society. "The fact that fire rescue would conduct such a study is commendable. It would be decidedly more useful it if were shared."

Suffolk Legis. Edward P. Romaine (R-Center Moriches), who declined to discuss specifics because the county asked him not to, said the report is helpful.

"It points out some of the things that could have been done differently, which . . . is the purpose of any after-action report," Romaine said. "I think the county is taking the wrong approach with this. I think it should be released."

After the blaze, Suffolk County Fire Commissioner Joe Williams hailed efforts and said departments used communication lessons learned from the 1995 Sunrise fire.

"The aggressiveness of our training and the improvements to our communications systems over the years were some of the biggest factors working to our advantage," he said.

Williams on Friday referred questions about the report on this year's fire to the county attorney.

Romaine said hundreds of volunteers took time off from work and life duties to fight the fires and they should be commended. "A lot of people who don't get paid showed up to protect lives," he said.

The commanders for the Manorville and Ridge fire departments who were in charge of the firefighter response did not return phone calls asking for comment.

In May, a state Department of Environmental Conservation report said that arson caused the fire. The Suffolk County Police Arson Squad said it still is investigating the cause.

Dedicated radio channel

The county report recommends that a dedicated channel for commanders would improve communication, said the officials who read it, and suggests that more training for volunteer firefighters would be helpful.

"These are types of things you would see in a normal report," said one official who obtained a copy.

Enhanced training also has been suggested by the Central Pine Barrens Commission, which holds a Wildfire and Incident Management Academy each year.

Local volunteer firefighters can take basic firefighting and wildfire behavior classes at the academy for free, though they rarely do, according to a May memo from commission chairman Peter A. Scully, who is also regional director for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The commission, he wrote, should look at alternative ways to deliver the training as well as encourage more volunteer firefighters on Long Island to take the classes.

Classes for firefighters at the Suffolk County Fire Academy have been cut under Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone's current budget.

Instead of offering 20 basic firefighting classes, the academy plans to offer 18 this year but is looking for grants and donations to add back the sessions, said the academy's executive director, Chief Richard Stockinger. On average, about 70 to 80 people take a class but as many as 100 have attended a session.

Suffolk Legis. Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma) sponsored a resolution this month to restore $87,700 in funding, but it never made it out of committee.

The Fire Chiefs' Council of Suffolk County has also approached Bellone's office about reversing the cuts, president Anthony LaFerrera said.

"More training is more effective," LaFerrera said.

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