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Two DE Firefighters Trapped When Radios Fail

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Two Claymont firefighters were stranded in the basement of a burning house early Wednesday when the state's 800 megahertz radio system failed, fire company officials said.

Two other firefighters found their exit cut off by fire and were unable to call for hoses because the radios did not work, said Deputy Chief Jack Anderson, the officer in charge of the scene. Altogether, four firefighters were injured in the incident.

"This could have potentially been a deadly mistake," fire company spokes- man Jacob Morente said. "There was no communication inside or outside, and the problem is you can't ask for help."

State officials said a blown circuit breaker in a radio signal booster caused the failure, which left firefighters battling a blaze in the 1000 block of Lawndale Road in Longview Farms without working radios to communicate with one another or fire board dispatchers.

At one point, firefighters sent an emergency evacuation alert because firefighters were trapped -- a warning that none of the firefighters inside the house heard.

"When we were conveying back there's a possibility that firefighters were trapped, we heard them, but they couldn't hear us," said Dave Roberts, the county's emergency services assistant manager. "It was very frustrating."

Officials said the firefighters were trapped for two or three minutes.

Emergency workers have long complained about the state's $50 million 800-megahertz system, a network of computerized radios and signal towers that went online in 1999. Police and firefighters have said they have trouble communicating in dead zones around the state and inside large buildings with thick walls. The Legislature recently approved spending an additional $4.3 million for repairs that would include the Claymont area.

State technicians traced the problem to a circuit breaker in a signal booster atop the Holiday Inn Select on Naamans Road. The signal booster was added about a year ago after problems with the 800-megahertz system emerged, officials said.

State officials said the equipment, which is used to boost radio signals in the Claymont vicinity from a full radio site on I-95 at Talleyville, does not have an alarm to alert anyone if the circuit breaker trips.

"This may have occurred during Monday evening's storm," said Bob Pederson, state Division of Communications manager. "That particular piece of equipment is not alarmed, so no one knows until a user reports it."

Pederson could not say whether the circuit breaker had been off longer than that.

" By the time we find there's a problem, it doesn't help us," said Morente, the fire company spokesman. "We have to maintain everything in a state of readiness always."

The state switched to the 800-megahertz system because it offered greater range and let workers with different agencies talk to one another at the same time during the same emergency.

Four firefighters suffered injuries, none of them life-threatening. Three were treated at Wilmington Hospital and released.

Morente said Claymont firefighter Tom Stratton dislocated his right shoulder and sprained his wrist when he fell through the first floor and into the basement. Firefighter Duane Reeder refused medical treatment after suffering bumps and bruises when he fell through while trying to pull Stratton to safety.

Firefighter Jackie Jenkins was treated for heat exhaustion, while John Perry suffered first- and second-degree burns to his legs through his fire gear, Morente said.

"They were very lucky," said Roberts, the county emergency services official. "We've been saying all along we hope somebody isn't hurt before this system's fixed."

Anderson, the deputy chief, said the radios also worked sporadically during a March fire in a Knollwood row house that claimed the lives of two residents.

"One minute you could hear everything, the next minute you couldn't," he said.

Radio problems in that fire were far less severe and played no role in the victims' deaths, Morente said. Firefighters knew the victims were trapped ahead of time and found their bodies quickly, Morente said.

Claymont fire officials will consider switching to their old radios because of the latest problem, deputy chief Anderson said. They will meet in the coming days to look for immediate fixes, he said.

Morente said when firefighters responded to the 12:16 a.m. call Wednesday, heavy fire lit up the home's first floor. The home was not occupied.

Firefighter Jimmy Dugan and Reeder manned the first hose into the burning house.

"We had fire rolling over our heads," Dugan said. "We had to crawl in under the fire and start knocking it down. Visibility was zero."

The hallway floor felt unstable, so the men held back until Reeder noticed a flashlight beam flitting back and forth through a hole in the floor, Dugan said.

The beam came from Stratton, who had fallen through the floor into the basement and was unable to call for help with his radio.

Reeder crawled forward on his stomach to try to pull Stratton up, Dugan said. Instead, the floor gave way and Reeder fell in the basement.

"At that point, I'm freaking out because the way the floor was burned out, you assume the fire is down in the basement," Dugan said. "I figured they were down there burning."

Dugan said he shouted to Capt. Donna Brooks, who was behind him, that two firefighters were down. "She started calling on her radio to tell them to bring a ladder and some more manpower to try and get them up out of the basement," Dugan said.

Brooks' radio would not work, so she ran outside to get help.

Deputy chief Anderson, who was at a command center outside the house, said he did not know that anyone was in trouble until he heard two sets of garbled words over the airwaves: "Lawndale" and "evacuate the structure."

"We had no idea they even called for the alert," Anderson said. "We were looking at each other out front saying, 'What the hell is going on?' " No one on the scene got the evacuation notice, Anderson said. The firefighters remained at their posts, unaware others were trapped.

Anderson said he had to use runners to relay basic information to crews, such as where to point their hoses and provide ventilation. That is how he found out about the trapped men.

"You find out you have guys down, you have no idea how long they've been down or where they're at, you can't talk to them at all," Anderson said.

An assistant chief in the back of the house had tried several times to call Anderson and tell him about the men. "He was maybe 150 feet away from me, 200 feet, and I couldn't hear him over the radio, Anderson said.

Dugan said he ran outside and grabbed a ladder. He and some other firefighters pulled Stratton and Reeder to safety.

It took firefighters from Claymont and Brandywine Hundred fire companies, and companies from Linwood and Ogden, Pa., 45 minutes to bring the fire under control.

The State Fire Marshal's Office said the fire was sparked by a malfunction in an electrical wire in the basement ceiling and caused an estimated $170,000 in damages.