Local News

January 15, 2014

House fire started from ‘electrical event’

Address confusion delayed response time

A fire that destroyed a house at 803 E. Morton Drive in Dalton on Thursday appears to have started from “an electrical event” in one of two breaker boxes in the basement, officials said.

Dalton Fire Department Chief Bruce Satterfield said officials don’t know all the details, but they’ve ruled out arson and determined the fire started from one of those two spots, probably an hour or more before the first caller notified 911. No one was home at the time of the fire, and there were no injuries.

By the time firefighters arrived, the fire was blazing out of control, so much so that it wasn’t even safe to send anyone inside, Satterfield said. Firefighters arrived on the scene several minutes later than they should have after a 911 operator inadvertently sent responders to the wrong address.

According to a report Satterfield sent to the Dalton Public Safety Commission, a person called 911 at 5:43 that morning, stated she lived on Morton Drive, and told the operator her neighbor’s home was on fire. Whenever the 911 center receives a call from a land line, the caller’s physical address is supposed to show up on the dispatcher’s computer. Phone companies are responsible for updating the information as people move, but this caller’s address hadn’t been updated.

Instead of listening to the address the caller provided, the dispatcher sent Whitfield County Fire Department responders to the caller’s old address, which was on Taylor Drive. Whitfield County Emergency Management Director Claude Craig said the dispatcher who handled the call still works at the center but has been disciplined after officials launched an investigation that same day. Craig said dispatchers are trained to listen to callers’ information and not rely solely on the addresses that come up on their computers.

“I’m not going to say that it never happens,” he said of mix-ups, “because apparently it does, but it’s not a common thing.”

At 5:47 a.m., the caller dialed 911 again and asked if firefighters were en route since she hadn’t heard sirens. A different operator answered the second call, explained the units were sent to Taylor Drive and learned about the mistake.

At 5:49 a.m., the second 911 operator dispatched the Dalton Fire Department to the correct location. Satterfield said he wasn’t sure the operator’s mistake made much difference in this case in firefighters’ ability to save the structure. Witnesses who investigators interviewed after the fact reported smelling smoke around 4:30 a.m., he said. By the time the first person called 911, the house had likely been on fire for well over an hour.

“It’s really hard to gauge what the effect was (of the misdirected dispatch),” Satterfield said. “It’s unusual to see a home that goes to the ground here in the city because the (fire) stations are much closer and response times are usually faster, but what you have to remember is that time of night and that time of morning a fire can get very advanced ...”

Satterfield said home alarm systems can help in situations like this one to guard against a fire getting out of control at night when no one is home to report it.

Dalton Fire Department Battalion Chief Chris Cantrell said fire investigators have no reason to believe the fire was intentionally set. Officials said the homeowner, Barbara Hennon, has family in the area to help as she deals with the situation.

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