Thursday, October 17, 1996
The real cost of the fire in Anderson

The Cincinnati Enquirer

It's always about money, isn't it?

Bilby Lane is a poor little road, deeply pocked and lined with cinder blocks. Loops of yellow tape - ''Caution Fire Line Do Not Cross'' - mark the cramped yard around the mobile home. A yard swan, a swing set, hobby horse, a big orange cat sleeping on a pile of bricks.

This is where a baby died.

Joshua Wayne Poe, 17 months old, was trapped in a bedroom, at the opposite end from where his mother was making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. His body was found next to his toy box.

Kitty Ross, 21, managed to save her 3-year-old son, Tommy Poe, last Friday morning. But she just couldn't get Josh.

''I couldn't make it,'' she said. ''I dropped to the floor, crawling about halfway.'' She probably had only seconds to save Josh if he was already surrounded by smoke. And how could he not have been?

Mobile death traps

The trailer - that's what they were called before manufacturers gussied them up with tip-outs and candy-apple-red bathtubs - melted. You can see two big Auxier gas tanks through the twisted, burned bedsprings. The walls are gone; the tanks are not even scorched. They are made of better stuff.

People do not live in trailer homes because they like the ambiance. They live in them because they are cheap. Trailers should come with warning labels on the sides: ''Unstable in high winds, extremely flammable, not to be used as housing for men, women or children.''

When we're all trying to figure out whether a new radio system would have saved this child's life, we might want to devote a moment to wondering why these death traps haven't been recalled and stacked in a giant pile to be burned. I'll bet the fire would last about 14 minutes.

But I digress.

Hours after this fire, Anderson Township Fire Chief Rob Brown stood before television cameras and renewed his pitch for upgraded radio equipment.

Hamilton County dispatchers first alerted the township's Broadwell Road station, located a few minutes away. But two firefighters from there were getting equipment checked at another station.

Dispatchers then called Newtown, but the station was understaffed because a volunteer was out buying groceries for a fish fry. Dispatchers then notified Fairfax - Madison Place firefighters.

''We couldn't get on the radio to call the engine we needed for coverage. There was too much radio traffic,'' Chief Brown said.

The price of excellence

This whole communications thing sounds complicated. There's probably a reason somebody couldn't have used a telephone in all this. The fish fry shopping sounds indefensible, but you can't fault the firefighters who were getting their equipment checked. Maintenance must be a big item for Anderson, known to less affluent operations as ''God's fire department.''

Besides the more mundane equipment, the chief has at his disposal a $24,000 Hovercraft. He works from beautiful year-old Faske Firehouse on Salem Road.

Brick with an impressive paned-glass entrance, it's nicely landscaped, too. Several dormer windows are capped with copper barrel roofs. A graceful brick privacy wall curves around the patio, which has its own gas grill and picnic table.

Chief Brown told The Enquirer that an internal investigation of the fire department's response to the Bilby Lane fire is likely to conclude that firefighters followed proper procedures. Meanwhile, township trustees say they are considering a request by Chief Brown for more money for the department.

Fire chief in Anderson for two years, he has an enviable record for modernizing and planning. And efficiency. His department protects 40,000 people and 36 square miles. It's a big place.

At the opposite end of the township from the chief's office is Bilby Lane. You can still smell the fire there. In the grass, next to a scorched piece of roof, I saw a pair of tiny purple mittens on a string. They prompt me to offer one sincere piece of civilian advice to Chief Brown.

Shut up about money for a few days.

Kitty Ross' baby died.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax to 768-8340. She can be heard as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.