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Fire response draws criticism; chief responds

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Greenville Fire/Rescue Chief Eric Griffin in 2017.

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By Tyler Stocks
The Daily Reflector

Monday, October 15, 2018

Greenville Fire-Rescue’s response to a fatal fire last month shows the department must place more emphasis on firefighting, a department critic said, but the chief defended his staff and said the tragedy should not be politicized.

Mary Mills, 83, died Sept. 29 at her home at 4105 Cornwall Court from smoke inhalation and burns, according to the medical examiner’s office. Smoking materials caused the fire, investigators determined.

Matt McMahon, a former lieutenant with the department who’s been among several former employees critical of Chief Eric Griffin, posted recordings of the call on Facebook and questioned the department’s response.

“I hate that more experienced people were not there that could have possibly made a difference in the initial stages,” McMahon said in an interview after the post began to circulate. “I’d be terribly concerned if it was my family in that situation.”

McMahon said the call was handled like a medical call, not a fire call, even though an alarm company representative told dispatchers smoke alarms could be heard in the background. He said command staff monitoring the radio traffic should have dispatched a fire truck sooner.

“What’s troubling to me is that nobody picked up on that. You have all these people in leadership positions and that was never picked up on,” McMahon said.

McMahon added that the department has been focusing too much on emergency medical services and not enough on fire protection, something that he said has been a concern for a while.

“We’ve said that eventually, a call is going to catch up with them like this; you’re not going have fire engines available because they are doing EMS calls. The primary fire engine for that district in South Hall was on an EMS call doing a patient refusal. You had a fire engine doing paperwork on an EMS call when an actual fire was going on in its territory,” McMahon said.

The recording showed the first fire truck did not arrive on the scene until 11 minutes after the department was dispatched, McMahon said. It would have arrived sooner if it had been dispatched immediately, especially after the alarm company mentioned a smoke detector.

An EMS team was dispatched to the fire because the call was for an unknown medical emergency, Griffin said last week. A fire truck also was dispatched according to standard operating procedure. The medical crew that arrived on the scene first also are trained as firefighters and immediately alerted the fire crew of smoke up their arrival.

The EMS crew had donned firefighting turnout gear as they were preparing to enter the home when the fire truck arrived. The staff was able to extinguish the fire quickly after arrival with a small amount of water, Griffin said.

Griffin last week listened to the recordings posted by McMahon and said the former lieutenant has been consistently posting negative information about the department. “The crews did a really good job based upon the circumstances they were facing,” Griffin said.

Griffin added, “They’re (The Mills family) going through a really difficult time and people are talking publicly about something that all of the facts are not there. I hope the family isn’t listening to all this Facebook chatter by people who do not have all the facts who are trying to take some recordings and make it something else.”

Griffin said the vast majority of calls the department receives are medical in nature and the department cannot respond to them all as if a fire is involved.

“If you look at what they did, they were on the way to a medical call and they got there fairly quickly. They were then presented with something else. ... That family’s going through a lot and nothing went wrong from a response and performance perspective.

Griffin said the recording also showed how busy the department was at the time, handling multiple calls at once including staffing the East Carolina University football game. The amount of emergency radio traffic was problematic as responders had to talk over each other as they responded to different calls for service.

“If I could change anything about that call, I would cut down on some of the radio traffic so that the responders could communicate better,” Griffin said.

Griffin lauded firefighters for their heroism and their prompt response.

“The crew from EMS 5 who were first on the scene recognized there was a problem and one of them tries to tell somebody there’s a problem but there’s so much radio traffic. He said something that none of us heard. He said we’ve got a fire and we need to do something different here. Thankfully, the fire truck was already on the way. They really did a great job based on the circumstances,” Griffin said.

“... By the time the engine arrived, the firefighters were already in their gear and getting ready to make an entry in the house. Their whole goal was to do a search and find any viable person. While they did put the fire out, they were working hard to find the person. Our first priority is to rescue. If I had been there, I would’ve done the same thing,” Griffin said.

The Daily Reflector last week contacted Mills’ daughter, Katherine Owen, about the response. She said that her family is trying to begin to move forward but is grateful to the first responders and emergency workers who rendered assistance to her mother.

“As far as we are concerned, this is a great loss and its over,” Owen said. “All of the first responders were very kind and understanding and they served their community well.”

Contact Tyler Stocks at tstocks@reflector.com or 252-329-9566. Follow him on Twitter @TylerstocksGDR.

 

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Local photographer Joe Pellegrino explores Greenville to create a photographic census of its people.

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