Report: Response to Deadly Houston Fire Hampered by Confusion

By Juan A. Lozano | September 4, 2014

Efforts last year to battle a hotel fire that killed four Houston firefighters were hampered by confusion over who was in charge, cluttered radio channels and other disorganization, according to a report.

But Houston Fire Chief Terry Garrison said that the problems at the scene ultimately weren’t responsible for the deaths, which happened when the roof at the Southwest Inn collapsed on May 31, 2013.

The four firefighters “made really good sound critical management decisions. … Unfortunately, there were some things taking place above them, the way the fire was impacting that structure that just caused that catastrophic event,” Garrison said.

It was the deadliest day in the department’s 119-year history. Killed were Capt. Matthew Renaud, 35; engineer operator Robert Bebee, 41; firefighter Robert Garner, 29; and Anne Sullivan, 24, a probationary firefighter. Another 12 firefighters were injured.

A nearly 200-page report made public Monday detailed various problems that happened during the fire, including not properly clearing areas to allow fire trucks and other equipment to reach the scene and one fire crew running out of water from its engine’s tank while another crew had to search for a hydrant.

The report did not indicate the cause of the blaze.

A main focus of the report was detailing problems with the fire department’s communication system, which had been put in place about a month before the deadly blaze. Garrison said the radio system at the time of the fire allowed people to inadvertently hit a button and key up a microphone, tying up the communication system and preventing others from speaking.

The fire department also needs to provide training on “proper radio discipline,” so people communicate over the radio only when necessary, the report said.

The radio system was changed to give incident commanders and fire chiefs higher priority over using it, Garrison said.

But Richard Mann, executive assistant chief, said radio problems didn’t cause the deaths that day.

“The radio system did not cause that roof to fall,” he said.

The report also offered more than 200 recommendations for improvements in various areas, including communications, technology and operations on the ground while fighting a blaze.

“These are not 200 things that were wrong but things we identified as notable items,” Garrison said.

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