August 15, 2013

Horry County releases report critical of actions in Windsor Green fire, vows to implement changes

The county released an after-action report Thursday that examined every department’s standards and expectations for a catastrophe the size of the fire, which caused an estimated $11.6 million in property damage and destroyed 26 condominium buildings in the Carolina Forest area.

CONWAY Improvements in communication, management of on-scene and anticipated resources, and in Horry County Police Department’s possessing required emergency equipment were among problems that Horry County departments identified as things that could have been improved at the time of the March 16 fire at Windsor Green condominiums.

The county released an after-action report Thursday that examined every department’s standards and expectations for a catastrophe the size of the fire, which caused an estimated $11.6 million in property damage and destroyed 26 condominium buildings in the Carolina Forest area.

“We have a clear path ahead for an improvement plan that lays out a number of things, and most importantly what’s with that is recommendations on how to get there and a timeline associated with that,” according to Randy Webster, director of emergency management for Horry County, who presented the report to the public safety committee.

“It allows you to look at things that went very well and to take your plan and kind of vet your plan. It also allows you to look at thing s that you can improve upon that maybe the plan didn’t address,” Webster said.

High priority items on the list included that Horry County Police Department did not possess required emergency equipment, communication with on-scene command was diminished by the volume of radio traffic, and on-scene resources and anticipated resource requirements were not well managed. The report also showed that a lack of “radio discipline created confusion and ineffectiveness early in the event.”

Examination of call records to 911 showed the initial call about the fire was transferred to another jurisdiction, leading to a 3-minute delay in the response time to the blaze that ultimately displaced 190 people. Corrective action in the report, which is slated to be completed by the end of the month, is to “Review and revise existing radio procedures and develop and implement new procedures, as required.”

Some items on the action report, such as a mass notification system was not used, initial media staging was “chaotic,” communication at shift change and a formal media briefing schedule, have already been addressed and are listed as completed on the report.

“The fire was contained in a relatively small area and did not spread into adjacent neighborhoods,” the report states. “Quick action by county first response fire and police personnel saved lives and surrounding property. Outside agencies, both governmental and non-governmental, were instrumental in the response and recovery effort. This demonstrated that while the county has extensive capabilities, in large-scale incidents we will need the assistance of outside agencies to provide resources and capabilities not organic to the county.”

In the report, Whitten goes on the say the county departments performed “very well.”

“To date, $138,300 has been approved by the U.S. Small Business Administration for disaster loans to the qualified residents of Windsor Green,” according to the report. “As Windsor Green continues to recover, residents have until December 31, 2013, to file an Economic Injury application through the SBA Disaster Loan Program.”

Dennis DiSabato, director of public relations for the Carolina Forest Civic Association and chairman of the association’s ad-hoc committee on fire safety, said the association would like to get involved in the county’s future plans for disasters such as Windsor Green.

“We’re just asking to engage in a discourse with County Council about some of the recommendations that we would make as a civic association and things that can be done throughout the county to help prevent situations like Windsor Green from occurring in the future,” DiSabato said.

Those ideas include helping the county become a fire-adapted community, which is a community that “takes responsibility for its wildfire risk. Actions address resident safety, homes, neighborhoods, businesses and infrastructure, forests, parks, open spaces, and other community assets. The more actions a community takes, the more fire adapted it becomes,” according to the website fireadapted.org, a federal coalition of federal fire agencies. Also, the civic association ask the county to create a call-in system for all unincorporated areas east of the Waccamaw River.

It also asks the county restrict golf courses from burning debris, which initially was where the fire was believed to have started. The civic association asks the council to require all utility companies with easements to maintain the land that the easement runs with, and encourages the council to work toward a compromise with landowners concerning the maintenance of privately owned and undeveloped property.

Paul Whitten, assistant county administrator for public safety, said he plans to focus on fire service and the association’s concerns at the next public safety committee meeting.

“We’ll address this item by item in the September meeting,” he said.

Webster said now is the time for department heads to abide by the designated timelines to improve the county’s overall response to disasters similar to Windsor Green.

“The main focus will be to take the improvement plan that’s part of the after action report and go by the timelines and see if we can get the recommendations that need to be done, see if we can get them done or maybe we need to change the recommendation based on research,” he said.

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