By Stacia Glenn
San Bernardino County Sun
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Firefighters and a woman who nearly lost her son in a house fire last week say significant damage could have been prevented if the first crew had been allowed go inside immediately and douse the flames.
Recent budget cuts have reduced nine of the city's 12 fire stations to three-man crews, which means firefighters must wait for a second engine before they can set foot inside a burning structure.
Although the first engine pulled up to the burning North Cold Mountain Drive home at 9:23 a.m. Friday, dispatch tapes show a backup engine didn't arrive for another nine minutes.
Firefighters can be heard three times asking where the second engine is or saying that they are ready to enter the building but have to wait for backup.
San Bernardino City Fire Chief Mike Conrad said backup actually arrived within six to seven minutes but, "in the excitement," firefighters forgot to hit a button telling dispatch they had arrived.
The next two engines on scene both responded from more than 5 miles away.
That response time is "not as good as we'd like, but we have to deal with what we've got," Conrad said Tuesday, adding that the first responders "did an absolute excellent job with three-person staffing."
Homeowner Danielle Aguilar said she is frustrated that firefighters stood by watching her house burn and is going to retain an attorney.
"Nine minutes is a very long time. Had they gotten here and went in, they could have saved more of my house. It is 95 percent gone," Aguilar said. "I think that's the city's fault."
She said she was shocked when firefighters readied their hoses but remained in front of her two-story house.
Fire engineer Dave Jacobo, who was one of the first responders, said his crew had to wait "too long" for a second engine and the fire grew significantly in that time.
"I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed that we had to sit and wait, that we couldn't do what we are paid to do," Jacobo said.
Firefighters stood outside the open garage and aimed their hoses into the kitchen, where the fire started. Once backup crews were on scene, they went inside and quickly knocked down the blaze.
That night, fire union president Scott Moss gave the family of five a $250 Wal-Mart gift card on behalf of the firefighters.
He said repeatedly asking where backup crews are is "a rare instance but it (could) be more common now" because of the drop to three-man crews.
Councilman Chas Kelley and Councilwoman Wendy McCammack, who have both said they support reinstating four-man crews, toured the Aguilars' house with City Attorney James F. Penman after the fire.
"The exact concerns I had occurred this morning (Friday)," Kelley said. "I believe it could have been prevented, the damage could have been limited. But this family is without now."
"We're playing roulette with public safety."
Copyright 2009 MediaNews Group, Inc.
All Rights Reserved