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City fire chief: Mutual aid agreement changed six months before Keswick blaze

City fire chief: Mutual aid agreement changed six months before Keswick blaze

For decades, Charlottesville city firefighters from the nearest station responded under a mutual aid agreement to fires in Albemarle County, the city fire chief said Tuesday.

That changed July 1. Under a new contract, city firefighters must be requested before they can respond, city fire Chief Charles L. Werner said. In the case of a Keswick fire that killed three people early Saturday, that did not happen, Werner said. City firefighters were not requested at that fire.

County officials said city firefighters instead were asked to cover “service gaps,” including calls for the Monticello Fire Department, which responded in 12 minutes to the burning home at Carriage Hill Farms. Werner said firefighters from the city’s Ridge Street station downtown, roughly the same distance away, perhaps could have arrived first or at least at the same time, but he added, “I don’t know if we could have made a difference.”

 “It’s an issue of timing and the amount of resources,” he said. “Instead of one engine getting there, three engines could have gotten there at the same time.”

County fire officials said one or two additional engines wouldn’t have made a difference.

“I don’t think in my professional opinion the outcome would have been any different,” said Dan Eggleston, Albemarle’s fire rescue chief. “That fire had advanced beyond the point of any survivable victims.”

Sayeda Nadia Ghaffer, 34, and her children, Ammar Seikh, 7, and Aiza Hussain, 2, were killed, Albemarle officials said in a news release Tuesday. Their father, Sadiqh Hussain, and the family who owned the farmhouse and lived on its ground floor were left homeless.

Sadiqh Hussain discovered the blaze when he arrived home from work at about 1:30 a.m. and tried unsuccessfully to rescue his family, authorities have said.

Werner said city fire units could have been called to Keswick, “but we were not requested.”

Under a new mutual aid deal, Charlottesville units must be requested for all county calls, and that can come at a cost – as much as “a few hundred dollars,” Werner said.

Firefighters from East Rivanna Station 2, located just a mile from the Keswick farmhouse, were dispatched at 1:32 a.m. to an assault call at a scene also about a mile away before the fire call came, according to online logs. Those logs showed that East Rivanna firefighters arrived at the fire at 1:52 a.m., a minute following the arrival of the Monticello crew, which is based at a station seven miles away.

Albemarle Deputy Fire Chief John Oprandy said in an email Monday that the East Rivanna crew “had responded and was staging, waiting” at the site of the earlier assault call, “standard practice for a reported assault,” when the fire call came. Albemarle Assistant Fire Marshal Robbie Gilmer said legal protocols require firefighters to wait until police arrive before leaving an unsecured scene in an instance in which there may be an injury.

However, Eggleston said Tuesday: “When that fire was dispatched, [East Rivanna] chose to divert from that call. They did not ever actually ever begin a treatment scenario with that EMS call.”

“They immediately left that scene,” Oprandy said, referring to the assault call.

Werner said that in addition to response time, the amount of resources can be important.  Before July 1, county firefighters could have expected the city’s help at the scene in a case like the one in Keswick.

“For decades, our contract was set up so that the closest station responded,” Werner said.

Eggleston said he and Werner along with County Executive Tom Foley and City Manager Maurice Jones negotiated the current agreement, which took effect July 1.

 “Over a number of years, when the previous contract was in place,” Eggleston said, “we invested in resources, fire stations, equipment and personnel in those particular areas that were formerly covered by the city.”

As investments in county assets increased, county spokeswoman Lee Catlin said, the county’s reliance on city fire stations diminished.

“We needed something different,” Eggleston said. “Werner and I and the county executive and city manager negotiated the current agreement that we’re operating under right now. We were all part of that discussion.”

Saturday, the city could have dispatched, at most, two engines to the scene of a county fire and only after the county requests aid, Werner said.

“Before July 1, we would have responded automatically,” Werner said.

The new agreement has not yet been ratified by the Charlottesville City Council and county supervisors, officials said. A copy of the document could not obtained by press time.

“The proposal … sets the annual cost of the agreement at approximately $187,000,” county spokeswoman Lee Catlin said in an email.  

That “covers up to 400 City responses into the County,” she wrote.

The city could have sent an engine to the scene Saturday, Werner said, without costing the county a dime.

“We actually have a buffer in our agreement for the general cost,” Werner said. “The first engine would have been well within that buffer.”

“If we sent the second engine, there may have been an additional charge,” he said, “of a couple hundred dollars.”

Charges aside, Eggleston said, “I don’t think any additional units at the time would have affected the outcome.”

Authorities said Tuesday they still have not determined the cause of Saturday’s fire. Authorities said they ruled out foul play.

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