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Fla. Fire Departments Argue Over Ambulance Response to Fatal Fire

May 03--A fatal Saturday night blaze on Raphael Road near DeFuniak Springs has re-ignited a war of words between the Liberty Fire District and Walton County Fire Rescue.

Liberty Fire Chief John Dunham said crews under his command called "two or three times" for Walton County to dispatch an ambulance to the scene of a structure fire at a home on W. Raphael Road, but it took 20 minutes for one to arrive.

"It's not right for the citizens of Liberty. They pay taxes for EMS and they aren't getting EMS service, we have to ask for it," Dunham said Monday.

Walton County Fire Chief Bobby Martin countered by saying Liberty Fire District, which refuses to sign a mutual aid agreement with the county, never requested assistance until units entered the home and found a body.

"How are we to know to go?" he asked.

Nothing that anyone did or didn't do Saturday likely would have been enough to save Bob Batchelor, officials said. Dispatch records show the home was engulfed in flames before any emergency personnel arrived.

Batchelor, a blind amputee, bravely perished while fighting the fire inside his home, officials said.

But the infighting between the county's paid fire and rescue department and the all-volunteer group at Liberty is clearly starting to irritate some county leaders.

"I find it extremely frustrating," said Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson.

Adkinson and Russell Beaty, the Sheriff's Office chief of support services, reviewed dispatch records from the Saturday night call and found that the four fire services that responded to Raphael Road were trying to communicate on scene and with dispatch over three, and sometimes four, radio frequencies.

That goes against existing protocol and can get people hurt, Beaty said.

"Ideally, for safety purposes, everybody needs to be on the same channel," he said.

Walton County's independent fire districts, Liberty and Argyle, prefer communicating via a VHF channel, Beaty said, primarily because VHF radios are significantly less expensive to replace than SLERS radios.

SLERS, the State Law Enforcement Radio System, is the frequency over which Walton County emergency personnel communicate. DeFuniak Springs' municipal fire department also uses SLERS.

"The volunteer departments have pushed back against SLERS since its inception," Beaty said.

Adkinson, who oversees county dispatch, has instructed all county fire departments to communicate with that agency only by SLERS.

And when there's an active incident, like Saturday's house fire, firefighters are instructed to communicate on SLERS Tach 1, Beaty said.

That apparently wasn't happening Saturday night, when dispatchers were receiving communication on VHF, SLERS and SLERS Tach 1, Beaty said.

The incident commander would have been a Liberty Fire District officer.

Perhaps adding to the confusion was the fact that a Liberty Fire District truck was the third department to arrive on scene Saturday, Adkinson said. A DeFuniak Springs truck and volunteer fire fighter from Argyle were both on scene by the time Liberty arrived.

Beaty also questioned the Liberty Fire District assertion that it took an ambulance 20 minutes to arrive.

He said the ambulance was on scene by the time firefighters were able to enter through a back door and remove the victim's body from the home.

The Liberty Fire District Board has been feuding with Walton County since the county decided in 2014 to stop providing annual financial assistance to its volunteer and municipal departments.

In February, the squabble became public for the first time when a tape was turned over to the media on which a Liberty assistant chief ordered a district truck to not respond to a county fire.

"You'll need to bypass Liberty due to funding considerations of the county," Assistant Chief Tony Roy told a county dispatcher in the Nov. 25, 2015 call.

Copyright 2016 - Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach

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