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TERRI SANGINITI and DENNIS THOMPSON Jr.
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
Officials said the firefighters were trapped for two or three
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
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
"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
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
"One minute you could hear everything, the next minute you couldn't,"
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
Firefighter Jimmy Dugan and Reeder manned the first hose into the
"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
"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
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
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.