73ºF

Broward Sheriff's Office took 13 minutes to arrive at fatal fire

'Flea infestation' blamed for fire station closing

BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. – When a fire in a nearby mobile home awakened them, several residents of the Broadview Park neighborhood off Peters Road anxiously called 911, urging dispatchers to get help there quick.

They knew that 12-year-old Ana Hernandez Marrero and her 51-year-old father, Armando Hernandez Valdez, were inside the small trailer as the flames grew.

"There’s people in there," one caller warned. "They are not coming out. Tell them to hurry!"

Student Aisha Oliveres was one of those who called 911. She said she couldn't believe how long it was taking for Broward Sheriff's Office firefighters to arrive. And she watched as the flames grew and still nobody was coming out.

"The fire definitely got bigger," she said. "By the time they got here, it was already engulfing the house."

From the initial call, it took 13 minutes and 14 seconds for the first fire engine to arrive.

"It was already too late at that point," said Oliveres.

Ana and her father were both pronounced dead at the scene and while a quicker response may not have changed that tragic result, the lengthy response time made no sense to residents who know there is a fire station located less than a mile away from the home, less than a minute's drive.

The main problem: That longtime neighborhood fire station had been vacated by the Broward Sheriff's Office more than three years ago. Because of that, the neighborhood's fire engine, No. 23, was parked more than 5 miles south at another Broward station near the Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale International Airport. For that reason more than eight of those 13 minutes were spent en route. And neighbors, like Connie Crotty, whose late husband Tim was once the neighborhood’s fire chief, says that puts residents at risk.

"It’s awful," she said of the response times in the neighborhood. "It makes no sense at all."

The reason for the closure borders on the absurd: fleas. The biting insects were cited in an internal 2014 memo from then-BSO Fire Chief Tony Stravino as the reason firefighters had to vacate the building. The flea infestation, according to the memo, had been caused by raccoons that had nested in the attic.

After firefighters left the building, the plan was to refurbish it, and that’s when the government red tape began to pile up.  

The county hired an architect to do an assessment on the building, which resulted in an April 2014 recommendation  that $130,000 worth of  improvements be made.

But it wasn’t until the following year, in March 2015, that the Broward County Commission approved a project that then jumped to a cost of $180,000. Despite the vote, when the fire struck more than 17 months later, on Aug. 24 no work had begun.

Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry conceded the response time for the fire was unacceptable and that the neighborhood had been in a bad position for the past three years due to the station closing, but she deferred some of the blame to BSO.

"What I can tell you is that I wasn’t maintaining the building so I couldn’t tell you what was going on in the building," she said. "BSO had responsibility for the building."

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel refused an interview request, though a BSO spokeswoman pointed out that the county had taken over the lease in early 2015.

After the Local 10 investigation began, the fire engine was moved to a station on Oakes Road in Davie, according to  BSO. That station is roughly 2.5 miles away from the site of the Aug. 24 fire, which, while not ideal, is a distance that emergency medical service could drive time in half it took for responders to arrive. 

The county, which funds BSO, certainly shares the blame. Henry said complications regarding switching the lease for the station from BSO to the county and engineering delays also contributed to the three-year shutdown.

"I believe the neighborhood is owed a more timely response and that’s why we’re working on it," said Henry. 

After the fire, the county did finally begin work on the building and Henry said the hope is that it will be ready to be occupied next month. But no matter when the station finally reopens, it won't be soon enough for resident Sandra Lyng.

On May 9, 2014, Lyng's 38-year-old daughter, Michele Rosario, went into cardiac arrest after a gall bladder attack. When Lyng called 911, the dispatcher assisted her with performing CPR. And the minutes passed. 

"I'm screaming, 'Where are they? Where are they?'" she said. 

She said that she kept giving CPR until she could no longer continue. 

"We got to 600 and I couldn’t do it anymore," says Lyng.  "The traumatic feeling when you're calling for help and nobody's coming and you don't know what to do anymore -- you just don't know." 

She said she thought it took more than 20 minutes but BSO records show help arrived in about nine minutes. This call -- unlike the recent fire call, which took several minutes to dispatch -- was promptly handled and almost of all that nine minutes was road time.

Lyng later learned that the neighborhood fire station had been abandoned. 

"When I found out that the firehouse was closed -- my God, how can they service this area in an emergency when they’re how many miles away?" she asked. "I don't know what they were thinking to leave a community like this without any first responders. We need it."